VICE PRESIDENT Gore is attacking Bill Bradley on grounds that Mr. Bradley's health care plan would require a tax increase. It's the wrong attack for a candidate with what we take to be Mr. Gore's aspirations. He feeds the notion that a tax increase is an illegitimate policy tool that, at least in present circumstances, no presidential candidate should countenance. "Read my lips," he almost says. Yet if Mr. Gore intends, if elected, to face up to some of the basic problems confronting the country, he -- no less than any other occupant of the office -- will have to entertain the possibility of a tax increase.

Almost no one believes that Social Security can be put on a sound financial footing without a tax increase. Some people believe that in the long run it can be made self-sufficient by investing in the market -- creating a system of personal savings accounts that over time will partly take the place of Social Security and ease the burden on it. But even assuming that such accounts could eventually do the job, how in the interim do they get financed, save by finding extra money somewhere? Few people think the entire solution to the Social Security problem lies in benefit cuts, and we very much doubt the vice president is among them.

Medicare presents an even greater problem, the more so if one would add the prescription drug benefit without which the president and vice president rightly say the program is not complete. And fixing Medicare does nothing to solve the further health care problem that has preoccupied Messrs Gore and Bradley of late: reducing the number of uninsured. Then there's the question of whether current taxes will support a defense increase such as Mr. Gore favors, once more rightly in our view, together with the rest of the general run of government.

Mr. Gore has chosen to position himself as the defender of current, successful fiscal policy against the tax cut plans of George W. Bush on the one wing and the spending plans of Mr. Bradley on the other. The vice president says that, unlike his rivals, he can be counted upon to live within whatever modest surplus may accumulate in other than Social Security funds. He constrains himself, as Mr. Bradley does not, and then is frustrated by the constraint, to the point of accusing Mr. Bradley of proposing to do too little in some areas even while accusing him otherwise of promising too much.

The presidential campaign is at least in part an opportunity to educate the public about the fiscal reality that lies ahead. There's a risk in doing that, which Mr. Gore does not seem disposed to take. That's fair enough, but he ought not worsen the problem by seeming to take a no-tax position that the next president, whoever he is, quite likely can't sustain. In seeking to use the tax issue against Mr. Bradley, Mr. Gore takes a false position that he himself may ultimately most regret.