Once upon a time, a politician would promise to do anything -abolish taxes, hold back the tides, run over his grandmother - in the name of the "working man." Not anymore. Nowadays everything is done in the name of "families" or, better still, for "children."

From Iraq to gun control, from global warming to air bags, there is nary a public policy issue that is not sold as a way to protect kids. Sure, gun locks might save an adult or two. But the important thing is what they do for the little ones.Kiddiecentrism abounds because it works. And it works because it sentimentalizes politics and because it flatters baby boomers recently emerged from boundless adolescence to parenthood.

Where did this technique start? Hard to say, but it was perfected by Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund. She realized in the early '70s that America had tired of the Great Society: "When you talked about poor people or black people, you faced a shrinking audience." What to do? Recast the very same programs as kids programs. Who's against kids?

As Mickey Kaus pointed out in a devastating 1993 dissection of Edel-manism, this political sleight-of-hand served to avoid substantive political debate. Rather than debating, for example, whether welfare - which after all went to the mothers, not the children - perpetuates a culture of dependency that breeds misery for both mothers and children, welfare reform was branded as evil for taking bread from the mouths of babes.

Now that welfare as we knew it has been successfully abolished -over the passionate opposition of Edelman, who prophesied that it would push millions deeper into poverty - you would think that the practice of disguising policy choices as pro- or anti-kid might have suffered a setback.

If you think so, you haven't been following the tobacco debate. Read President Clinton's anti-tobacco speech in Carrollton, Ky., last month. It invoked children no less than 34 times in 21 minutes, an indoor record.

Or consider the tobacco bill that passed the Senate Commerce Committee 19-1. Beyond a curb on advertising and a youth initiative, it includes a $516 billion fine - oops, "fee" - paid from a $1.10 per pack tax hike, plus full FDA regulation up to and including the power to ban nicotine, and more fees (again paid to the government) for the right to export. All this, you see, to save kids.

For kids? Nonsense. The whole point of the anti-tobacco movement is to get everyone to stop smoking. The people huddled miserable, furtive and scorned outside office buildings stealing a smoke are not kids. They are adults, feeling the lash of today's fashionable Prohibition.

But the pols can't admit that the only possible logic of an anti-smoking campaign is to strangle the industry that peddles the stuff. They can't admit that the royal ransom being extorted from tobacco companies desperate for liability relief is a way for a Democratic president to fund a wish list of social programs and for a Republican Congress to get tax cuts.

So they say this is all for the kids.

Look. The two provisions in the commerce committee bill that will have the greatest real effect on teen smoking - the ad curb and the "look-back" measures that penalize Big Tobacco if youth smoking is not reduced - require the voluntary cooperation of the companies. Con-gress has the power to tax and gouge, but not to abridge free speech or hold companies responsible for teen behavior. And on these two teen-sensitive provisions the companies are willing to cooperate.

They also agreed in their June 1997 deal with the state attorneys general to significant FDA regulation, a $369 billion fine and financial penalties if youth smoking is not reduced by 50 percent within seven years. But the Senate bill upped the ante to a half-trillion dollars and took away the liability protection that the attorneys general had given the companies and that had brought them to the bargaining table in the first place.

Of course, the companies were for years duplicitous purveyors of (a legal) poison. Perhaps an exemplary criminal liability charge against a few executives - followed by a good public hanging - will satisfy our national craving for retribution.

But the basic claim under-lying civil tobacco litigation - that individual smokers were innocent victims, unaware that tobacco was addictive and dangerous to their health - is too ridiculous to be allowed to clog up our judicial system, as it undoubtedly will unless some liability relief is passed.

But it probably will not be passed. The politicians are not after a deal but blood money, mountains of it. Consequently, there may be no tobacco legislation at all this year. That is too bad. There is a compromise waiting to be struck, that is if anybody is really doing this for the kids.