George Wallace, it turns out, was wrong. In fact there is considerably more than "a dime's worth of difference" between the Democrats and Republicans.

In the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, Americans were asked which one of five "legislative priorities" -- dealing with education, reforming Medicare, passing tougher gun control laws, passing a patients' bill of rights or cutting taxes -- they judged most important for this Congress to act upon.

For Republicans, the most urgent mission for the Republican majority on Capitol Hill -- named by one in three GOP respondents -- is to cut taxes. In stark contrast, Democrats put cutting taxes at the very bottom of their legislative wish list. A piddling 3 percent of Democrats put cutting taxes first.

It is traditional for Americans to dislike paying taxes. But very few today assign a high priority to cutting taxes. Congressional Republicans are rallying the base of the GOP on the one signature issue their fractious party actually agrees upon.

Voters in 1999 are mostly pleased with the robust American economy, according to pollster Fred Yang, who worked on the WSJ-NBC survey. They "feel better about their own situation, feel less need for a tax cut and are openly skeptical" about whether they themselves would ever receive any measurable tax reduction -- and fear the cuts would end up "in the full pockets of the wealthy."

Democratic pollster Geoff Garin is outspoken in his analysis of why the electorate, excluding true-believer Republicans, is so widely unexcited about using the projected budget surplus for the proposed tax cuts. "The rich people have already prospered," declares Garin. "They've already gotten their `balanced budget dividend.' "

The evidence in support of Garin's case is irresistible. Every October, publisher and occasional presidential candidate Steve Forbes identifies in print the 400 richest individuals in America. To make the exclusive Forbes 400 in 1992, the year Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency, an individual needed a minimum fortune of $265 million, and the No. 1 spot was worth $2 billion. Six years later, after Clinton and the Democrats had imposed "confiscatory tax increases" on the richest 1.2 percent of Americans, you personally needed $500 million to claim the last spot in the Forbes 400, and the first in the class had a personal wealth of $5.84 billion. In 1998, there were 189 billionaires on the list, a 14-fold increase since the Reagan years.

This was not the way it was supposed to work. The Wall Street Journal editorial page had attacked that Democratic plan as "designed to punish success" and as "this witch's brew of taxes and mandates [which is] poison for the economy." How wrong could they have been?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1993 and 1997 the share of this nation's adjusted gross income earned by individuals making more than $1 million a year increased by a hefty 67 percent. The number of individuals with adjusted gross incomes between $200,000 and $500,000 a year was up by 36 percent. In large part because of the improved economy and an explosion in personal wealth, individual income taxes collected under Clinton rose from $522 billion to $647 billion in 1998. That may or may not be "success," but it sure doesn't qualify as "punishment."

Underdog presidential candidate Bill Bradley probably spoke for a majority of his fellow Democrats this week when he said: "We want to be able during these good economic times to make sure that everybody is on that train moving forward. So I would spend [in a time of budget surplus] to raise children out of poverty and to help people have health care in this country."

Yes, tax cuts do increase individual autonomy and widen choices. But no tax cut will make the air healthier or the water cleaner or fill a poor 7-year-old's prescription.

At least on tax cuts, there is more than a dime's worth of difference.

Creators Syndicate Inc.