It is a marvel that anyone should strive and sacrifice to be a legislator in a period of austerity. Perhaps it weeds the field to the most cynical and the most public-spirited. A few demagogues thrive by feeding divisions and then leading factions. But the best leaders in lean times share certain attributes:

●A sense of proportion. Good leaders focus the most attention on the things that matter most. In our case, the main problem is not simply public spending — it is entitlement programs on a path of accelerating, unsustainable spending. Those who devote their main attention to cutting food stamps or soaking the rich are grinding ideological axes, not confronting fiscal realities.

●The courage to take on large interests. If the largest voting bloc or the most organized pressure group always prevails, then public benefits and burdens become a function of political influence, not need or merit. So politicians, at various points, will be required to resist AARP and Americans for Tax Reform, public-employee unions and tea party activists.

●A sense of humanity. Cuts that are equally applied are not equally felt. The reduction of a malaria program that saves the lives of children is not the same as the reduction of a highway program. Across-the-board cuts are an attempt to avoid political choices, but they do not avoid human consequences.