ON THE OPPOSITE page today our columnist Michael Kinsley pokes a stick in our eye over what, sad to say, may indeed become the overarching question in the next election: the relative vacuousness of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on the issues of spending and taxes. We had earlier taken the Democrats to task -- all but Bruce Babbitt -- for a certain lack of forthrightness in this area. You understand why. They all solemnly agree that the deficit must come down, then spend their days busily agreeing with various constituencies that social spending should go up -- yet none will say what they also know, which is that the only way even to begin to do these things is to raise t---s.

Mr. Kinsley doesn't dispute this, just argues that the Republicans are entitled to equal time, that elections tend in the end to be binary events and that, on a scale of gravitas to levitas, the Republicans beat the Democrats to the light end every time. Well, we do a lot of silly things around here, but we're not going to fall into that trap. We're not going to defend Jack Kemp's fiscal policy, if that's the right word for that strange alchemy in short pants. We're not going to defend the campaign pronouncements on this subject of Pete du Pont or the Rev. Robertson or the vice president, either. (Gen. Haig is actually a little better than these on the subject, though somewhat obscure.)

Mr. Bush, of course, began unfortunately to zig on taxes just as the president to whom he is so faithful zagged a little. "I'll never raise taxes," said the vice president, just as the president said he would raise them a little. Bad timing. Mr. Bush also says he would cut the capital gains tax, a step which he argues would be such an engine of growth that it would generate more revenues than it would lose. Where have we heard that before? The vice president is like the Democrats: he knows better. We will stipulate that he is as bad on this issue as they.

But not quite so with Bob Dole. True, as Mr. Kinsley observes, he doesn't come right out and say it, but rather cops out in code that we need some "bitter medicine." An empty phrase, except that Mr. Dole also has a much clearer record on this issue than the elliptic term suggests. In the middle reaches of this administration it was not the Democrats but the Republican leadership in the Senate that pressed the president -- and the Democrats -- to agree to the combination of defense and Social Security cuts and a tax increase that is necessary to bring the deficit under control. Those annual efforts were in important part Mr. Dole's handiwork. On some of them he got pretty badly burned. The man has tried, and has risked something to do so.

Nor does it quite save the Democrats for Mr. Kinsley to say: Oh, well, everyone does it. The Republicans' special burden on the fiscal issue is clear; it is the record of the last seven years. But the Democrats' special burden is also well understood. The Democrats want to restore the legitimacy of the mildly redistributive form of government for which their party has stood, and around which it has been built, for so many years. That means a Democratic president will have to spend but prove he is spending well and within the government's means. A candidate who comes to office with that as a goal about which he has been evasive in the campaign is doomed to failure. We'd like the effort to succeed instead. The Democratic candidates are not just office-seekers. For better or worse, they are the stewards of a tradition, and when they behave like hacks, it hurts