Probably so, but they don't vote. 1998 is an election year, and politicians need a formula that ends with, "elect, elect." We know people vote for candidates who offer tax cuts and popular spending programs. The question is, will people vote for a candidate whose top priority is to retire the national debt?
Meanwhile, Democrats are fighting back pressure from Republicans to support a broad-based tax cut. They're afraid that what happened in 1981 could happen again. In 1981, Congress passed a big tax cut without cutting spending. The deficit skyrocketed. The result was 16 years of pressure to cut back government.
It could not have worked better if Republicans had planned a big deficit. In fact, some Democrats suspect that's what Republicans are trying to do now, with their clamor for another big tax cut.
Because the truth is, while it lasted, the deficit was good for the GOP cause, like the Cold War. Both issues forced Democrats to compete on GOP terrain: smaller government and strong national defense. Now Republicans are in uncharted territory. And the White House is pressuring Democrats to move in their direction.
None of this bothers American voters, however. They've settled into a comfortable rut. They like divided government. It works. Why spoil a good thing?
Which is why it's not really in Vice President Al Gore's interest for the Democrats to win control of Congress this year. Not only would it make Gephardt, his chief rival for the nomination, speaker of the house, but it would make it much harder for Gore to win the election.
The election, not the nomination, is Gore's big problem. Sitting vice presidents usually win their party's nomination and then lose the election. George Bush was the only exception in 150 years.
A GOP Congress gives Gore something to run against in 2000. He can make the blank-check argument: Electing a GOP president would be like giving Gingrich and the GOP Congress a blank check.
Republicans used that argument at the end of the 1996 campaign, when it became clear Clinton was going to get reelected. The GOP ran ads warning voters that electing a Democratic Congress would be like giving Clinton a blank check.
It worked. But if Congress goes Democratic this year, it would take away Gore's best issue, and give it to the GOP. Republicans could say to the voters, "Do you really want to go back to a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress? Remember Clinton's first two years in office?"
After that experience, followed by the GOP's "contract with America," voters have come to a firm conclusion: No more big agendas. Leave us alone. And the best way they know to ensure that is to vote for divided government.
The budget surplus invites politicians to do exactly the opposite. It's "found money." And politicians can't resist the temptation to come up with a big agenda to do something with it.