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WASHINGTON — For the past two decades, Americans have been living in the shadow of the “twin towers of debt” that overhung the federal government and threatened the economic well-being of future generations: the national debt and the international balance of payments. Both grew geometrically during the past 20 years, and both were easy targets for political rhetoric.

President Bill Clinton recently released an improved estimate of the fiscal-year 1999 federal balance sheet, showing a current-year surplus of $99 billion — up $20 billion on an earlier estimate. Even more impressive is the fact that the projected budget surpluses in the years to come (over $1 trillion more than previously expected) will pay off the entire national debt by 2015.

This represents an enormous change in the political landscape of fiscal rhetoric. The budget deficit has been a leading topic for conservative politicians, who gloomily predicted national bankruptcy and used this threat to oppose federal spending plans. Liberals were forced to explain how the world was not ending and that the modest amounts their pet programs would add to the debt would pay long-term benefits that would right the fiscal ship of state.

Now, both sides need to get new speeches written, explaining how to spend the new money; the Republicans propose tax cuts, while the president and the Democrats propose to “save” Social Security and Medicare before doing anything else with the new largess.

The other tower of debt continues to grow — it sets a new all-time monthly record almost every month. But few express much concern over it. When things are good, the foreign-trade balance is not an issue. That is being proven every day this year.

Bush sets a record

When the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced last week that it expected to have raised more than $23 million in the first half of 1999, it was big news. When it announced on Wednesday that the amount was actually $35.5 million, the news was explosive. The Bush numbers are monumental. His campaign has raised more money in its first six months than any other campaign has raised in its entirety in the history of the Campaign Act (since 1976).

To Republicans, this just put more frosting on Bush’s cake. The front runner from the start, Bush has now shown an ability to attract financial support that is greater by far than that of all his opponents combined.

The numbers do a couple of things for Bush. He has now shown himself able to raise big money – possibly as much as $100 million in the course of the campaign. That is the kind of money he will need to compete without having to accept the matching federal funds. By forsaking these, Bush will escape the spending limits that come with the cash and also be able to capitalize on the ideological posture of not taking government money for his campaign.

Despite the good faces the other candidates are putting on, the Bush fortune is a crushing blow to their hopes — with the single exception of Steve Forbes. In fact, it could be a godsend to Forbes because he now becomes the single alternative to Bush. He will have more money than Bush because he has the unlimited trough of his own bank accounts to spend on his campaign. He is projecting total spending of at least $130 million. That is $100 million from his personal account and another $30 million in contributions. (Why raise the money? Forbes believes that a contributor builds an important support bond also because it will take money from the limited pool of Republican contributors.)

Forbes can now move to consolidate the right wing of his party. The conservatives, unhappy that Bush is not “right” enough on many of their issues, are looking for a candidate. Forbes has been winking at them for three years and now he can reel them in.

More woes for the vice president

Vice President Al Gore has raised a total of $16.7 million dollars in the past six months, more than any nonincumbent presidential candidate has ever raised in a similar period of the campaign. But he was dwarfed by the Bush bonanza and, of equal importance, he led Sen. Bill Bradley by only $5 million. This means two things for the Gore campaign:

1. Bradley will be able to mount a substantial primary campaign. Gore was hoping for an unopposed nomination campaign, and now he is guaranteed a strong opponent. Gore leads Bradley by just 12 points in New Hampshire.

2. Bush is likely to have enough money to spend next year to begin his fall campaign early — while Gore is still focused on Bradley. The ability to focus and spend media dollars early proved decisive in the last presidential election, when Clinton built a strong lead over Dole before Dole was able to get started.

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