Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 /16 Menachem-Av, 5764
Missing in Beantown was a sense of the art of the possible
BOSTON The Democrats did a good job last week framing the presidential campaign their way. What was missing was a sense of the art of the possible.
Polls indicate that a plurality of voters are inclined to accept the Democratic critique of President Bush and his tenure. But there is ample evidence that the alternative offered by John Kerry is simply unachievable.
In foreign policy, the Democratic argument is that the Bush administration has made the country less safe by alienating friend and foe alike, isolating the country in the face of a growing terrorist threat.
The decline in the international reputation of the United States is actually a long-term trend. But it has certainly accelerated alarmingly under the Bush administration, which appears utterly indifferent about it.
The alternative Kerry offers is a U.S.-led international consensus that includes allies accepting more of the burden of such efforts as containing or rehabilitating Iraq.
But there is little reason to believe that wayward allies - primarily France and Germany - have much interest in being led by the United States, through consensus or otherwise. In fact, they're principally interested in reversing the relationship, using an international consensus to contain and lead the United States.
The international accords on such things as global warming and the international criminal court are illustrations of this. And tellingly, Kerry has not committed to work for their ratification by the United States.
In military terms, there's also not much capacity for burden-sharing anyway. NATO is having a hard time meeting its current commitments in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the United States is the only industrialized nation that has invested in the military capability needed for effective action in the modern world.
Domestically, the Kerry campaign has two main messages:
Improving the economy requires reducing the deficit.
The federal government needs to do a lot more to help average and low-income Americans meet their needs and improve their lives in a wide range of areas.
Kerry has yet to offer an even semi-coherent plan to reconcile these two conflicting domestic directions.
To increase federal revenues, Kerry proposes to eliminate the Bush tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 a year and to cut corporate welfare.
Generously considered, that would produce an additional $60 billion to $80 billion a year.
Conservatively estimated, Kerry has proposed spending increases in the range of $200 billion to $250 billion a year.
Simply put, Kerry cannot do what he is saying he will do. Something will have to give.
In one of his deficit hawk moods, Kerry actually seemed to acknowledge this, saying his spending plans would be trimmed if necessary to restore fiscal discipline.
But he has given no indication of what in his vast array of domestic spending programs he might jettison. On the stump, he continues to promote them all, with emphasis given to whichever of them most appeals to the audience to which he is currently talking. And almost never with a warning that fiscal necessity may require them to be deferred or junked.
In fact, the chief failing in a generally successful convention was in not giving the American people a firmer sense of Kerry's priorities.
The Democrats went to great lengths to make the case that Kerry is a fit leader and commander-in-chief in an era of international terrorism.
And an extensive agenda of what Kerry would like to do was on display.
But Kerry cannot do what he would like to do. And Americans were left with no greater sense of what he will do, given realistic fiscal and political constraints.
Now, the art of the possible is seldom a welcome visitor to the political conventions of either party. And given the building block nature of American politics, a wide-ranging agenda is inevitable.
But politicians usually signal what's truly important to them, what they will spend time and risk political capital to achieve.
That's known about Kerry's foreign policy. He's an ardent internationalist who will work very hard for a U.S.-led international consensus that will probably prove elusive.
Domestically, it is unknown.
The convention succeeded in giving voters a better sense of John Kerry, the person and political figure, and making the Democratic case against Bush.
But what John Kerry will really do as president, particularly in domestic policy, remains too much of a mystery.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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