The Washington Times

The presidential election is a mess. Granted, it is a mess in favor of the incumbent, and George W. Bush’s contribution to the mess pales in comparison to that of the John Kerry campaign. But it is a mess just the same, one likely to yield an outcome well short of optimal, even if my guy wins (or for that matter, if yours does).

There certainly is a choice before the American electorate in November. Unfortunately, it is a choice between one man, Mr. Bush, whose campaign is running competently if not indeed brilliantly, and another, Mr. Kerry, whose campaign to date is wholly inept. I was not expecting ever to look back on the 2000 campaign of Al Gore and find in it a model of political competence. Nevertheless, the Gore campaign is indeed a model of excellence next to what the Democratic nominee has managed so far this year.

I suppose that if Mr. Bush wins, especially if he wins handily, he will claim vindication for the policies of his first term in office and a mandate for the issues he is running on this year. That’s what winners do. And indeed, Mr. Bush was challenged in his first term as few presidents are. He responded forcefully and coherently. On the domestic front, he offered a large tax cut and ensuing deficits. He presides in Washington not as an opponent of “big government” but as a sort of modernizer, having massively reorganized the executive branch (for homeland security) and having involved the federal government in policy areas in which local governments enjoyed authority but underperformed (“No Child Left Behind”). On foreign affairs, his response to the al Qaeda attack was to topple two governments and to reorient national-security policy in the direction of pre-emption/prevention of threats and the promotion of freedom.

He now proposes significant tax reform, the adoption of private accounts for Social Security, expansion of health savings accounts, and in general promotion of “an era of ownership.” He also proposes a continuation of the security policies of his first term, especially taking the fight to terrorists abroad.

Like it or hate it, what all of this amounts to is a record and an agenda for 2005-2009. In the event of victory, he will proceed accordingly. One of his strengths as a politician is his ability to say where he stands and to act consistently with what he has said. I certainly won’t begrudge him that.

On the other hand, to date neither his record nor his agenda has been seriously contested by his opponent. Had the Democratic nominee done so and then had Mr. Bush prevailed, we would truly be able to say that we had participated in an election worthy of the choices before us abroad and at home. Mr. Bush would have won with the mandate he will claim – or, perhaps, Mr. Kerry would win with a mandate of his own to do things differently. As it stands, in the event of the collapse of Mr. Bush – and it will take no less for Mr. Kerry to win, so determined does he seem to be to offer no other rationale for his campaign than that Mr. Bush doesn’t deserve to be president – Mr. Kerry will have won having offered next to no guidance on what to expect from his administration. I guess we will just have to let it come as a surprise to us.

The Kerry campaign seems to wake up every morning in 1972. (The heroism, the band of brothers.) But whoops, what about Christmas in Cambodia in 1968, what about throwing back the medals or decorations (whoever owned them), what about other Swift boat veterans with a different story to tell, what about the war- crimes accusations?

Well, how dare you, and besides, what about George W. Bush, and how he got into the Texas Air National Guard, and the missing records – and what was he doing in Alabama besides drinking, carousing, disobeying regulations and shirking his duty?

Yes, well, but about those “memos,” which are transparently forged, yet which Dan Rather bought hook, line and sinker, and which the rest of the liberal media initially rushed to pick up on without a scintilla of the scrutiny that greeted the claims of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? And what an amazing coincidence, that it was “favored son” week at the Kerry campaign just when CBS unloaded.

Yes, but the fraudulence of the memos doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Bush was drinking and carousing in 1972, does it? And by the way, Dick Cheney was a shirker, too.

Surely a reasonable response to all this is to run screaming from the room. Surely there is something more interesting and politically useful for Democrats to focus on than what Mr. Bush and he were doing in 1972.

Then again, maybe not.