The growing fiscal surplus of the U.S. government is forcing vote-seekers in a major political season to make healthy ideological choices.

The growing fiscal surplus of the U.S. government is forcing vote-seekers in a major political season to make healthy ideological choices.

Individual politicians and major parties alike define themselves over the question of what to do with other people's money. The question represents the essence of politics and political belief.

The surplus now focusing attention on the question developed because the government taxes the citizenry too much or spends too little. The reasons are not mutually exclusive. A government can tax too much and spend too little at the same time.

Yet any thoughtful politician is intellectually and temperamentally inclined to select one factor over the other as the main cause of imbalance. The inclination amounts to ideology, a quality about which many politicians act inexplicably bashful.

Every candidate for federal office in the year 2000 should have to name the principal factor of current and projected surpluses in the federal budget. Voters would learn much from the answers and the dodges concocted by politicians loath to address the question.

To no one's surprise, President Bill Clinton hasn't been bashful about his ideology where other people's money is concerned. He obviously thinks the government spends too little of it. As soon as the Treasury Department increased its surplus projections, Clinton called for increases in spending on a variety of new and existing programs.

On the other side of the issue, Rep. Bill Archer, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been no less bold. Obviously believing that the government taxes its citizens too much, Archer proposed a series of aggressive rate cuts.

The Archer proposal developed into a $792 billion, 10 year tax-cut package approved by the House. While the Senate prepares to consider a different package aiming at the same total, nervous lawmakers from both parties are looking for a compromise worth $500 billion to taxpayers over a decade.

Clinton, who has hinted he would accept tax cuts totaling $300 billion, let it be known that he would veto plans at either of the higher levels under discussion in Congress.

This is revealing discourse. It revolves ultimately around what politicians deem to be the proper role of government and how much of the national wealth should be dedicated to its performance.

And it is ideological in nature. It cuts to the core of political belief. Unfortunately, ideology makes many politicians squirm. Asked whether the surplus stems from excess taxation or insufficient spending, politicians of this variety insist it's the wrong question.

So the budget surplus not only defines beliefs but also distinguishes leaders from squirmers. Leaders eagerly declare and defend core beliefs. Squirmers eagerly split differences and hide from revelatory questions behind appeals to pragmatism.

The contrasts will sharpen as the political season progresses. For voters, it should be enlightening.

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