AMERICANS are four and a half months away from their quadrennial presidential election, and the nearest thing to a real ``issue'' yet to surface is the difference between George Bush and Michael Dukakis over taxes. Mr. Bush loudly asserts that if elected president he will absolutely, definitely, without question, not raise taxes. He asserts that his prospective presidential rival, Mr. Dukakis, will raise taxes. Dukakis counters by saying that if elected he will aim at a balanced budget during his presidential term of office and points to his record in Massachusetts where as Governor he usually has had a more or less balanced budget.
How many votes are going to be swayed on Election Day by Bush's promise to not raise taxes and by Dukakis's promise to arrive some day at a balanced budget?
You know the answer. Not very many, not by anything like the number needed to decide the outcome on Nov. 8.
The promise to not raise taxes will appeal to all voters accustomed to paying substantial federal income taxes. But these are going to vote Republican anyway. Besides, the American voter is sophisticated enough to know that election promises about taxing or not taxing, and balancing or not balancing federal budgets, are worth little after Election Day.
We know that regardless of today's promises either a Bush or a Dukakis once in office would raise a tax rate or accept an unbalanced budget if circumstances of the moment make it seem politically imperative.
The essential fact is that the emphasis on taxes and balanced budgets in early summer of an election year tells us one very important thing. There is no great issue dividing the American people today. There is no great movement demanding a major change in the rules and regulations and systems that govern the great majority of American lives today.
There are grievances, yes. The number of homeless in the slums of the big cities is a scandal. No other modern country tolerates such conditions.
The traffic in drugs is a disgrace and the cause of obscene crime and corruption.
There are serious problems awaiting the next president after Election Day.
Everyone knows that America must become more competitive, and must find a way out of both dangerously unbalanced federal budgets and unbalanced foreign trade accounts.
Everyone knows that we have been overspending carelessly on military hardware. The next president must sort out the necessary from the wasteful and unnecessary.
Everyone knows that great wisdom must be brought to bear on the management of United States relations with the Soviet Union.
These will tax the competence of the next man in the White House.
But they are not yet issues in the campaign. The rivals have not taken up contrasting positions on the future management of these problems. They are not debating whether we need bigger or smaller aircraft carriers, whether we need to revive nuclear fuel to cut down the damage to the environment being done by too much use of fossil fuels. (Is this behind today's severe drought?) They are not debating whether to go ahead or slow down ``star wars,'' or whether to encourage Mikhail Gorbachev's reform programs for the USSR.
The main rivals sound as though they were avoiding most of these subjects perhaps because they have not taken the trouble to put serious study into them.
Bush claims, rightly, a lot of experience in foreign policy (at the United Nations and in China) but he has said nothing to prove that he has mastered the great problems of foreign policy. Dukakis sounds like a man who has never had time to sit down and get himself seriously briefed by experts in foreign policy.
In other words, at the moment the American people are looking at rivals who have not by public presentations yet proved that they understand the problems the winner will have to tackle or possess promising remedies for those problems.
It is comforting that there are no great divisive issues at stake in this election. But it would be helpful to know more than we do about the prospective competence of the candidiates.