WASHINGTON — JUST how many times have Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush raised taxes?
It is not a question that promises much illumination of either candidate's future tax policy.
Yet the number of tax increases in Mr. Clinton's Arkansas and in Mr. Bush's administration is an issue that the Republican campaign will not give up.
In the process, the president, Vice President Quayle, and their campaign spokesmen continue to repeat numbers that are widely considered to be false.
Late last week, the Boston Globe and NBC News quoted Bush campaign officials admitting that they knew the numbers were false, but used them anyway because "they worked."
Governor Clinton then called the president "cynical" and compared him to Pinocchio, he of the lengthening nose. The Bush campaign responded with a fax accusing Clinton and his campaign of "flat out lying."
So, at least in circles that pay close attention to the campaign, the issue of counting tax increases has given way to the issue of credibility, and the president's credibility in particular.
For most voters, who have more pressing matters to attend to, Bush's repetition of questionable numbers may indeed just "work."
"What penetrates to voters is that even though Bush raised taxes once, Clinton's the one who's more likely to raise them," says a Republican political strategist, adding that the actual numbers are not important.
The legacy of President Bush's broken no-new-taxes pledge has left voters so cynical about political rhetoric that they hardly listen to it, says the strategist, who did not want to be quoted by name. "Voters just aren't as willing to listen to the president. They've tuned him out."
So, ironically, the fine points of what is true and what is false are likely to be drowned out by the power of repeated assertion.
Bush used the disputed figures in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Houston: "Who do you trust in this election: the candidate who raised taxes one time and regrets it or the other candidate who raised taxes and fees 128 times and enjoyed it every time?"
By the time of that speech, Bush campaign officials had been using the figure for weeks. Liberal columnist Michael Kinsley and Wall Street Journal reporters had already published separate accountings of the flaws in the Bush arithmetic.
Some of the 128 increases were items counted twice because they took more than one line. One was the lengthening of the dog-racing season - which meant more revenue, although the tax rates did not change. An increased sales tax on alcoholic beverages was counted as six increases by adding up the categories of beer and wine.
The Bush campaign cites the Arkansas Legislative Tax Handbook as its source. But Richard Sims, who produces the handbook as tax director for the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research, made his own count at the Monitor's request and found fewer than half the number of tax and fee increases that the Republicans count.
On the other hand, many of the items are inarguably tax hikes, the most significant ones being sales tax increases.
But the more fundamental complaint with the Bush arithmetic is that, if similar accounting methods are applied to the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Republicans raised taxes far more often than Clinton did.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) added up every tax provision under Bush and Reagan that rated a separate line-item revenue estimate from the Joint Tax Committee of Congress, says public finance section chief Jack Taylor. The count was 327 for all 12 Reagan-Bush years, 78 during the Bush presidency alone.
The Bush campaign has offered no specific defense of its claim of only one tax increase to Clinton's 128. Instead, officials argue that their numbers suggest a larger truth: that Bush wants lower taxes and spending, while Clinton proposes raising both to record levels.
Clinton does, in fact, propose raising taxes on families with incomes over $200,000 and on foreign corporations in the United States. But the Bush campaign does not add in Clinton's proposed tax cuts that would offset at least two-thirds of that increase.
Only if Clinton does not enact the tax cuts would his tax hike surpass the largest such increase in dollar terms - Reagan's in 1984 - and the second largest - Bush's in 1990.
But even these historical benchmarks are misleading. If inflation is factored in, past tax hikes far surpass current increases, says Mr. Taylor of the CRS.