WASHINGTON — I don't mean this to be a smart-aleck question, but I do wonder: Do Americans really believe what they say they believe?

Or to put it more honestly, do those people — meaning people who disagree with me — really believe what they say?

Two circumstances prompt the question. One is what might be called "The Mystery of the Disappearing Weapons of Mass Destruction," to which I'll return in a minute. The other is the bill that President Bush is about to sign reducing taxes by about $350 billion. Congress has given him only about half of what he sought, but it's still a whopping amount given the parlous state of the economy. The president has advertised the tax cut as an economic stimulus and the people have bought it. Do they really believe it?

I'm cynical enough to consider that the vote in the Republican-controlled Congress may have as much to do with politics as with belief: The Republican president wanted it and so did major campaign contributors.

And the people? Rank-and-file supporters of the tax cuts offer two main points: that tax cuts always increase revenues (as witness cuts under Presidents Kennedy and Reagan) and that if you give the people some of their money back, they'll either spend it or invest it, either of which will boost the economy.

If they believe this — that it is the tax reduction itself, not the specific ways in which it is directed, that provides its revenue-enhancing power — aren't they logically bound to keep cutting taxes, even to zero and beyond? Do they really believe that a stock market, stalled by the fact that there is so much investable money "sitting on the sidelines," will be stimulated by giving more money to those on the sidelines? And if they believe, as many of them claim, that Washington bureaucrats would only waste the money if we don't cut taxes, won't the increase in revenues the tax cut is supposed to trigger give the bureaucrats more money to waste?

Many of those who argue for this tax cut on the ground that it will increase government revenues were, in the first year of the Bush administration, arguing for tax cuts because of the record-level revenue surplus. If the government has too much, cut taxes. If it has too little, cut taxes.

What I am saying is that, at least for some people, tax cuts are economic dogma, to be believed rather than understood.

And so it seems to me is the case of Iraq's still-undiscovered weapons of mass destruction.

People used to argue that it was Saddam Hussein's WMDs that made Iraq so dangerous to its neighbors and to America that a pre-emptive strike was the right thing to do.

They still think the WMDs will eventually be found.

They seem not to have thought of the question that seems so obvious — and so obviously important — to me: Why would Saddam, facing annihilation, take the bother to hide his chemical and biological weapons so carefully that we still haven't found them, while leaving his millions of American dollars right where we could find them?

The WMDs, these supporters now say, are irrelevant. The new revelations regarding Saddam's brutality to his own dissidents are justification enough for what America has done. Both the war and the tax cuts began as policy decisions. The justifications for the policies were developed — and changed as often as necessary — to accommodate the policy.

And a lot of people have gone blithely along.

I wonder if they go along out of belief, out of deference to their leaders or out of partisan loyalty.

Or maybe they don't go along as naively as I imagine. A recent New York Times poll that found two-thirds of Americans approving of the president's job performance also found that more than half of those polled have serious doubts about the tax cut.

They hope it will work — as, of course, I do. And it's a fair bet that they won't give the money back.

I won't either.


William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group