Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 /8 Menachem-Av, 5764
Kerry inflated agenda reveals he's failed to truly make the transition from
legislator to presidential candidate
Thus far, the Kerry campaign has been a mosaic that doesn't yield a picture
or a pattern.
To borrow Churchill's phrase, there's no theme to the pudding.
This isn't for a lack of specific policy proposals. The Kerry campaign is
fecund with programs for everything under the sun and moon, and even for
Kerry has a multi-billion dollar proposal for health care, alternative
energy, education, state and local subventions, homeland security, small
business investment, manufacturing employment, child care, elder care. If
it's arguably beneficial, Kerry wants to subsidize it or give it a tax
This, in part, reflects his political philosophy in favor of a hyperactive
federal government. The American people cannot be left to provide for
themselves, or to work things out at the state or local level. If they want
or need something, the federal government has to get involved.
But it also reflects a failure of Kerry to truly make the transition from
legislator to presidential candidate. Legislators perforce deal with what
is thrust before them. But the power of the presidency is to set the agenda
for the nation.
If a president thinks something is important, it's important.
But setting an agenda requires discipline. If everything's a priority, then
nothing's a priority.
Given the building-block nature of American politics, a broad agenda is
inevitable. But usually you can sense what's truly important to a
At this point, it's difficult to identify what, in his cornucopia of
programs, Kerry will try to do first or will risk significant political
capital to accomplish. His speeches tend to be sprawling public policy
His best opportunity to give a sharper impression of what his presidency
will truly be about is this week's convention. And the selected theme -
"Strong at Home, Respected in the World" - offers some hints, both about
his priorities and his political strategy.
If anything seems to matter more to Kerry than other things, it's his
ardent internationalism. While he says he won't wait for permission to take
action necessary to protect the country, he will clearly devote significant
attention to developing an international consensus and try to operate
The growing hostility toward the United States around the world is a real
problem, and the Bush administration can be fairly faulted for being
indifferent, even defiant, about it.
But the world Kerry wants to re-establish, where U.S. leadership is
generally accepted and achieved by diplomatic consensus, has probably been
left behind by time and circumstances.
For example, the draft Democratic platform criticizes President Bush for
failing to "build a coalition of countries, including the other permanent
members of the U.N. Security Council, to share the political, economic, and
military responsibilities of Iraq."
That means France, Russia and China, all of which were trying to dismantle
even the leaky sanctions regimen before the Bush administration put the
spotlight and heat on Iraq.
The diplomatic world Kerry wants to inhabit is probably unattainable, but
there is a bit of mischievous delight in the prospect of Kerry devoutly
trying to wheedle Jacques Chirac.
"Strong at Home," of course, has a double meaning. It references Kerry's
treasure box of proposals to make life better for Americans. But it also
references the underlying issue of this campaign in the shadow of 9/11:
protecting the country against terrorism.
The Kerry campaign apparently believes that if it can neutralize Bush's
advantage on security, it will win the election.
That's not a bad bet.
Bush's approval ratings are treading around dangerous territory. Public
response to the question of whether the country is on the right or wrong
track has been in the danger zone for an incumbent.
Moreover, Bush's Texas swagger, which contributed to his popularity as
governor, just doesn't play as well on a national and international stage.
Democrats are fond of saying that elections are a referendum on the
incumbent. If so, reassuring the American people that a Kerry
administration will keep them safe may be enough to win the election. Which
may be why the Kerry campaign has seemed to adopt the cautious rhythms of a
frontrunner, rather than the more freewheeling flow of an insurgent.
The Bush camp seems to sense the same thing. It's certainly not running a
Morning-in-America campaign. It's trying to turn the election from a
referendum on Bush into a compared-to-whom contest. That's why its ads have
pummeled Kerry far more than they have touted Bush's record.
Kerry's record as a legislator and as a candidate certainly provides a
target-rich environment. But if the country is indeed in the mood for a
change in direction, he can do much to move beyond that in this week's
But that will require a discipline in setting priorities and curbing an
appetite for more government that Kerry, thus far, has failed to exhibit.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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