The Democrats' race to catch up with the Republican revolution has taken two forms. President Clinton, tacking to the right, is offering a kinder, gentler Gingrichism. The House Democrats, their rudder stuck on orthodox liberalism, offer something far more inter-est-ing.

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt countered the Republicans' middle-class tax cut (and pre-empted his president) with one of his own. What was interesting was not his late-blooming post-election concern for the middle class. It was the way he couched his counter-pro-posal.The Republican tax cut was for everyone making up to $200,000 a year. His stops at $75,000. The Republicans, thundered Gephardt, keep favoring the rich. The Democrats are the party of the little guy.

As a ploy for an orthodoxy that has entirely run out of ideas, this is not a bad try. It coattails nicely on Republican pandering to the middle class, with the added punch of class warfare. Gephardt's problem, however, is that like most liberals, he plays the only class warfare he knows: anti-rich. And it doesn't work.

One reason for the current conservative ascendancy is its grasp of a fundamental truth about the American middle class: It may harbor the occasional envy-tinged resentment of the rich, but what class animus it has is directed against the poor.

That is why at the top of everyone's list for reform - and at the top of the Clintonites' list of missed political opportunities - is welfare. In any national survey, what Americans imagine is spent on welfare is usually wildly out of proportion with what in fact is spent.

This is a reflection of how deeply those who (as Clinton likes to put it) work hard and play by the rules resent those who don't and earn a taxpayer-funded paycheck for their non-labors.

Victorian England drew a sharp distinction between two classes of poor, the "deserving" and "undeserving." So do Americans. And they think there are more of the latter than the former.

The latest New York Times/

CBS News poll shows that more Americans think the poor are poor because of a lack of effort than because of circumstances beyond their control. Which is why by a margin of 4-1 they want to cut welfare.

Americans are quite prepared to carry the deserving poor: the disabled, the involuntarily unemployed, the widowed, the divorced, the abandoned (for whom the welfare program was originally intended).

But not the undeserving poor, those who can work but don't, and especially those who earn the automatic right to a government stipend by dint of a single act of personal irresponsibility: bearing children that the mother can't and the father won't support.

Part of the Republican success in the political revolution of 1994 was harnessing middle-class resentment of the undeserving poor. House Democrats would like to deploy resentment of the rich. Bad choice. In the battle of resent-ments, the Democrats lose.

The middle-class attitude toward the rich is far more complex and, in the end, benign. Its most salient characteristic is simple fascination. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" is not just an endlessly replayed hit TV show. It is the theme of every other magazine cover in America.

In the least class-bound, most socially mobile society in the Western world, class resentment against the rich is hard to fan. Do people resent Bill Gates or even Donald Trump? In America, the middle classes don't hate the rich; they want to join them.

The liberal demonization of the rich finds its ultimate expression, however, not in Washington but in Hollywood. TV and film dramas have an amazing tendency to attribute violent crime not to the usual suspects - desperate lowlife - but to shadowy, nefarious (usually white male) executive-types.

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In the film remake of "The Fugitive," for example, the murder cannot, as in the TV series of 30 years ago, be the work of just the one-armed man. It has to have been orchestrated by some corporate bigwig who contracts killing to preserve profits.

The premise is as politically correct as it is wildly improbable. The truth, alas, is that crime is generally an occupation of the poor. For obvious reasons. They need the money. And when the well-off do commit crimes, it is usually the white-collar variety, not the street crime that so terrifies the ordinary citizen.

People feel far differently about the accountant who embezzles than the thug who breaks into their car or holds them up for cash. Indeed, the very rarity of violent crime among the rich helps explains the national fixation on the O.J. Simpson case.

In a society as fluid as America's, it is not smart politics to base one's appeal on any kind of class warfare. But to base it on a resentment of the rich in particular, as Gephardt and old-guard Democrats would like, is even dumber.

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