Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 /8 Menachem-Av, 5764

Robert Robb

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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 during eclipses.

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 credit.

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 candidate.

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 junkyards.

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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 within it.

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 convention.

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.


07/12/04: Edwards punctuates Kerry fantasies
07/06/04: Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote
06/30/04: High Court gave administration limits
06/25/04: Parallel (political) universes
06/21/04: Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war
06/02/04: Gas whiners don't believe in or trust markets
05/10/04: Border reforms fail on black-market issue
05/07/04: It wasn't Bush's recession nor Bush's recovery
04/28/04: Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
04/23/04: Accusations that the Bush administration has been shredding civil liberties are hyperbolic
04/16/04: Learning the limits
04/14/04: Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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