A clearer choice

October 15, 2004

WITH PRESIDENTIAL campaigns scripted to a fare-thee-well by poll-testing consultants, it was perhaps inevitable that the two candidates showed up Wednesday night for their final debate identically clad in the classic power uniform: dark blue suit, white shirt and red polka-dot tie.

But the debate itself sharpened the policy differences between the two men. And all three debates taken together gave voters a much clearer idea of the choice that confronts them on Election Day than all the sound bites and campaign commercials that preceded them.

Voters getting to know the candidates better is most likely an advantage to Mr. Kerry, the less-familiar challenger, who has to convince them he has the stature and wherewithal to be president. In agreeing to three meetings, the Bush campaign may have gambled that Mr. Kerry would turn in such a poor showing that the race would now be effectively over. Instead, the senator succeeded in redirecting the focus of the campaign to Mr. Bush's record, where it belongs.

By almost any standard, Mr. Bush has a tough record to defend. The disastrous albatross of a war in Iraq is the worst of it, of course. But the anemic economy, which has reduced the standard of living for so many Americans, doesn't speak well for him, either. What's worse, the huge tax cuts Mr. Bush pushed through, ostensibly to speed a recovery, have probably done more harm than good by ballooning the deficit.

Oddly, the only agenda Mr. Bush offered for his second term was to stay the course.

Senator Kerry's claim that he can do better, both in cleaning up the mess in Iraq and in restoring vitality and high-quality jobs to the economy, can only be accepted, though, on faith. Real progress on both fronts is not likely to come swiftly or easily.

On national security, the key difference between the candidates is that Mr. Bush sees terrorist attacks as a rationale for a constant state of war, justifying pre-emptive strikes on perceived threats, such as Iraq, as well as a steady erosion of civil liberties at home. Mr. Kerry proposes targeted action against terrorists with the aim of reducing the risk to a manageable level.

Mr. Kerry is more proactive on domestic issues, proposing to use government to expand health care, boost the minimum wage, protect the environment and ease the pain of workers suffering through a global economic transition. To pay the tab, the senator would eliminate Mr. Bush's tax cuts on those with incomes above $200,000 a year.

In Mr. Bush's most eloquent tribute to Mr. Kerry's improved position in the contest, the president dropped the flip-flopping charge he has been leveling at the senator since last spring, falling back on the time-honored taunt: "liberal."

Both candidates, though, continue to dodge truly difficult issues, such as reforming Social Security and closing the budget deficit. Neither could even muster a plan to ensure an adequate supply of flu vaccine.

With nearly three weeks to go, there's time to hope for more.

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