POLITICIANS are rarely more enchanting than when they are engaged in some outrageous piece of chicanery like the tax giveaway to the fancier classes just passed by the House of Representatives. This is because there is always something both touching and amusing about hypocrisy so blatantly displayed.
For absurdity it would be hard to improve on the spectacle of the Republican hordes rushing to cut taxes even while howling that the nation is being destroyed by a deficit.
Good sense makes the audience ask why, if there isn't enough money to pay the bills, these characters want to make sure there will be even less money next time the bills come due. Are they trying to insure the republic's doom?
The question implies that our lawmakers are truly worried about the deficit doing us in. Maybe so, but what they are truly, truly, truly worried about is the next election. And who can blame them, poor devils?
The prospect of the United States overtaken by Deficit Doomsday is an abstraction too difficult to visualize. Politicians spend their lives hearing fakers cry "Wolf!" and often cry it themselves if it promises to help their campaigns, yet the wolf hasn't even come close since Dec. 7, 1941.
Deficit Doomsday is too abstract to make a politician's juices boil. Isn't God, after all, an American? Hasn't He always been there before when America needed Him?
There is absolutely nothing abstract, however, about the next election. The next election is constantly being lost. The wrong party is forever winning the presidency, the good people are incessantly being defeated for Congress.
The next election is as real as last night's polls, as near as the lobbyist in the doorway, as ominous as the pallbearer tone of this morning's newspaper columnists.
One of the many appalling consequences of the onset of Total Communications is that the next election is always here and now. At this very instant the 1996 election is uppermost in every political mind. The campaign has been running hot and heavy since the 1994 Election Day exit polls foretold the Republican triumph.
Both political parties believe with the fervor of religious faith that tax cuts are vital to victory in this campaign. Modern political wisdom holds that elections are won by cutting taxes and lost by raising them.
Observe, for example, that President Clinton and most other Democrats also propose tax cuts for "the middle class." The quarrel among politicians is not whether to cut taxes, but how to parcel out the treasury loot.
Both parties want boons bestowed on "the middle class," that being the class with the decisive vote. Republicans define "middle class" to embrace those making $200,000 per year. Democrats think $200,000 is a far-fetched outer limit of "middle."
Connoisseurs of political comedy will note that our politicians, though given to mournfully deploring all who seek to promote "class warfare" in our famously "classless society," boast proudly of their eagerness to ladle gravy over this remarkably deserving "middle class."
It is a mistake to think politicians are unaware of their hypocrisy in such affairs as this tax-cut bill. Most of them are at least as smart as most of us and five times more experienced in the political dodge.
Many who are indeed worried about the deficit surely know it is senseless to hand out big tax cuts. Yet, the beauty part: They can collect voter credit for being heroic tax-cutters, while soothing conscience with the thought that the Senate will surely undo the wilder follies of the House bill.
Others will justify the bill by citing promises from Speaker Newt Gingrich's fiscal philosophers to "pay for" the giveaways by making heroic budget cuts one of these days. If you believe this will happen, the purity of your innocence will warm many a heart, especially your congressman's.
There are many steps in this tax minuet. One of the most amusing is the Republican attempt to box President Clinton into dancing to Republican music. If the Senate can be persuaded to go along with the House's generous tax boons for swells, it might provoke a presidential veto so the Republicans could denounce him as an accursed taxer.
Ah, what childish political joy. And everybody gets elected! Or vice versa. And what's the difference?
Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.