The Washington Times

What, George W. Bush’s record in office hasn’t given John Kerry enough to work with? Instead, the Democrat prefers to run against demons he himself has conjured? The Kerry campaign’s grip on reality, which it seized with tenacity during the first debate, by the close of the third had become tenuous once again.

While I’m voting for Mr. Bush, that’s hardly because a case against him is impossible to make. It seems to me that the Democratic case could have had three principal elements that would together have stood a decent chance of delivering the White House.

First, from surplus to deficit: Mr. Bush shamefully squandered the balanced-budget legacy of the Clinton years, leaving seniors at risk when baby boomers retire. Mr. Kerry’s problem here is that he seems uncomfortable cast as a fiscal moderate, and his domestic plans leave him vulnerable to the counterargument that public finances would only deteriorate further on his watch.

Second, the job in Iraq needs to be finished, now, so that our troops can come home. That means training Iraqis, but what it really means is crushing the insurgency. Mr. Kerry got so bollixed up over his position on what Mr. Bush has said and done that he missed his opportunity to define an effective distinction going forward. It’s too late now.

Third, trust: George W. Bush took America to war having misunderstood the situation and gotten the reason wrong. The next president of the United States may have to look Americans in the eye one day and tell them that the United States has no choice but to go to war. How reassuring will it be if it’s George W. Bush looking them in the eye? Here, Mr. Kerry, like most of his party, has been too obsessed with whether Mr. Bush misled the American people or lied to them, which he didn’t, to realize that Mr. Bush’s mistake was big enough to provide ample opportunity to challenge his credibility going forward without damaging Mr. Kerry’s own credibility by overstating and misstating the Bush problem. Once again, it’s too late.

Perhaps what I’m saying is that Democrats should have nominated Joe Lieberman, which would have been impossible given the intraparty environment. But I simply don’t believe that a more deft campaign along the lines drawn here, even with Mr. Kerry at the helm, could not have kept the Democratic base intact while reaching beyond it to people who like Mr. Bush and even admire certain aspects of the way he dealt with the extreme adversity of September 11, but who might be prepared to entertain the view that different leadership could do better.

At the third debate, Mr. Kerry did a credible job outlining centrist, “New Democrat”-style policy proposals. This policy catalogue is rather at odds with his voting record in the Senate, which is indeed liberal, even if, as Democrats insist, the charge that Mr. Kerry is the most liberal member of the Senate overreaches. (Would Democrats think it somehow unfair to categorize the tenth or even twentieth most right-wing Republican in the Senate as “conservative”?) But the centrist proposals do indeed effectively rebut the “liberal” labeled as applied to the candidate’s positions. Collectively, they are Mr. Kerry’s last hope.

How bizarre, then, to hear Mr. Kerry turn instead to such monumental sideshows as the sexual orientation of the vice president’s daughter, the specter of the return of the draft, and Mr. Bush’s supposed secret agenda for “privatizing” social security. What, real issues are not enough?

I don’t think the Mary Cheney episode was really designed to try to estrange conservative evangelicals from the Bush-Cheney ticket. Rather, I think it was a product of Mr. Kerry’s (and also John Edwards’) bad conscience about their own official opposition to gay marriage. They know in their hearts they are hypocrites on the subject for reasons of political expediency. The first thing that comes to their minds when the subject arises is to look for a bigger hypocrite, which they think they have found in Mr. Cheney. But even if this is true, it is no less despicable.

Mr. Bush’s coming draft is simple hysteria. The last thing on earth the U.S. military needs is large numbers of the sort of people now getting themselves worked up about the possibility of being drafted. Rather than skipping this madness, Mr. Kerry waded into it with suggestions that Mr. Bush’s personnel policies might be pointing toward a draft. Every moment you spend talking about wildly implausible scenarios is a moment you are not spending on your proposals for the real world.

Mr. Bush has an expensive proposal for social security reform that involves private accounts. “Privatizing” is a word Democrats have discovered scares people. It is meant to shut the debate down, not engage it.

Yes, it would indeed be ironic if the final downward spiral of the Democratic ticket, 2004, began with John Edwards and John Kerry singling out on national television an opponent’s daughter as a lesbian. They think the windmills they are tilting at are Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney.