Act two

September 03, 2004

IN AN UNUSUAL ploy for an incumbent, President Bush sounded last night like he was running for re-election on a platform of change.

He promised in a determinedly upbeat and occasionally quite personal address accepting the Republican nomination to overhaul the nation's outmoded tax code, health insurance network and pension system. To build a safer world in an era of guerrilla terrorism, he promised to transform military and intelligence services and remain on the offensive in striking terrorists abroad "so we do not have to face them here at home."

The president's plans, some of which turned out to be less ambitious than they sounded, seem designed to mask a thin record of achievement during a tumultuous first term clouded by both war and recession.

As Democratic challenger John Kerry sought to base his campaign for the White House on the brief period in his youth when he was a decorated military leader in Vietnam, so Mr. Bush has seized on an even briefer moment to recommend him - his visit to the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"Since that day, I wake up every morning thinking about how to protect our country," he said, repeating a line often used on the stump.

Certainly, the horror of those attacks and the era of fear they introduced to the nation drastically changed the course of Mr. Bush's presidency. Yet a chief executive must be judged against the full record of his tenure, particularly one who has had the rare luxury of a Congress controlled by his own party.

The tax code is indeed outmoded, and almost criminally complex. Its biggest problem, though, is that it's not bringing in as much money as the government is spending - thanks in large part to Mr. Bush's massive tax cuts.

He made no mention of how he plans to reduce the deficit, other than to restrain unspecified federal spending. At the same time, he proposed to use the tax code as the principal vehicle for expanding health care, increasing job training and boosting economic development in communities that have lost manufacturing jobs to counties overseas.

Many of his self-help and ownership ideas sound good, but under his leadership much of the burden of financing government has shifted from those most able to pay it to the far less comfortable members of the middle class.

The president claimed bragging rights on two major pieces of domestic legislation, the No Child Left Behind education bill and the prescription drug benefit for Medicare. But the first has been woefully underfinanced, and the second has been handicapped by a prohibition against negotiating for pharmaceutical discounts.

Mr. Bush extolled a government that would help people but "not try to run their lives." But moments later he renewed his support for a constitutional amendment that would forbid gay marriage.

Much of his address was devoted to national security, and his determination to take pre-emptive action as he did in Iraq, glossing over the glaring shortcomings in planning and intelligence that seriously undermined that misadventure.

His theater-in-the-round approach created an unusual intimacy, as did his admission to "flaws." But in the end, he promised four more years in which his approach wouldn't change at all. What we see is what we get. Fair enough.

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