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RUB OUT THE FEDERAL RED INK FIRST

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By hinting that he may propose some as yet unspecified tax cuts, Republican presidential contender Bob Dole is lofting a trial balloon that represents the triumph of expediency over principle.

It's a trial balloon that Dole himself ought to shoot down before it explodes in his face.Never mind that the tax cuts might be offset by spending cuts, though such belt-tightening is not certain. Such a move would still leave the U.S. Treasury with less revenue than it had before - and just as much deficit.

Never mind that the tax cut suggestion looks like a campaign move based on desperation as Dole continues to trail President Clinton badly in the polls.

Never mind either that the suggestion is inconsistent with Dole's repeated demands that the federal budget be balanced before any major tax cuts are made. Or that previous polls show most Americans are more concerned about balancing the budget than they are about cutting taxes.

The simple economic fact remains that tax cuts can make it needlessly hard, if not impossible, to balance the budget. The simple political fact is that by flirting with a tax cut promise, Dole can make it harder for fellow Republicans in Congress to keep fighting for a balanced budget and easier for President Clinton to back away from budget balancing, a cause to which he is at best a fair-weather convert.

Keep a couple of other key facts firmly in mind, too. Federal taxes now constitute 19 percent of the gross domestic product, virtually unchanged from 1952 when the federal deficit was considerably smaller than it is today. Moreover, the United States has the lowest relative tax burden - including state and local as well as federal taxes - of any industrialized nation.

These facts demonstrate the folly of any election-year war about which candidate will do the most to cut taxes. Dole - and Clinton, too - should keep priorities straight and insist that a balanced budget come first. Only with a surplus in hand should Washington start thinking about major tax cuts.