THE TRICK NOW is to keep the push for a middle-class tax cut that arguably responds to the recent election from turning into a tax-cutting contest that simply panders to voters - and panders, if the polls can be credited, in a way voters themselves disdain.

The numbers indicate strongly that more of us would rather see federal budget-cutting applied to the deficit than returned to us in tax breaks that won't make a big difference in our lives anyway.That judgment is sound, but a tax cut is politically inevitable and of the plans on the table so far, President Clinton's is the least objectionable.

The case for any tax cut is decidedly not economic. The economy is growing so robustly that the Federal Reserve keeps clubbing it with higher interest rates to hold it back.

None of the current proposals, not even the Republican one for $107 billion over five years, is large enough to juice a multitrillion-dollar economy, and to whatever degree a cut did race the engine, the Fed would crank up interest again, robbing most of us of any real gain.

The only even halfway sound argument for a cut is still the one Clinton made as a candidate - fairness. The rich are getting richer, the poor poorer and the middle class thinner. That's bad social business.

But although little acknowledged for it, Clinton already has eased that trend with an income tax boost on the upper crust and a tax cut (yearly average per household, $1,000) for some 15 million of us earning under $25,000 a year.

There are several plans in play. Republican Sen. Phil Gramm simply wants to give the store away, and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt kites a number - $75 billion over five years - with no idea how to pay for it.

Gephardt's game seems to have been to steal a little thunder from the president, a wearisome sign that congressional Democrats are going to be no more help to Clinton in the next two years of his term than they were in the first two.

The outsized GOP plan depends in part on so-called "dynamic" budgeting, an assumption that the cuts will provoke so much economic growth that the taxes from it will pay for the party hats and booze.

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That's just a new name for the Reaganomics that quadrupled the national debt. Been there. Done that.

Clinton's $60 billion plan at least is limited to the incomes for which some relief can best be argued, and it is geared to sound purposes - savings, capital formation and funding for the higher education our next generation must have. It allows for a little more debt reduction, too, though too little.

Clinton struck the right note in his talk. Call it militant moderation: This far and no farther with tax-cutting. No giveaways that deepen deficits; none that pad wealth to no national purpose. And no tax-cutting whose hidden agenda is anti-government extremism.

But, of course, Clinton has talked a good line before, only to let it degrade in neglect or overly hasty compromise. Now he's down to cases. On this one, character really does count.

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