Kerry for President

Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page B06

EXPERTS TELL US that most voters have had no difficulty making up their minds in this year's presidential election. Half the nation is passionately for George W. Bush, the pollsters say, and half passionately for John F. Kerry -- or, at least, passionately against Mr. Bush. We have not been able to share in this passion, nor in the certainty. As readers of this page know, we find much to criticize in Mr. Bush's term but also more than a few things to admire. We find much to admire in Mr. Kerry's life of service, knowledge of the world and positions on a range of issues -- but also some things that give us pause. On balance, though, we believe Mr. Kerry, with his promise of resoluteness tempered by wisdom and open-mindedness, has staked a stronger claim on the nation's trust to lead for the next four years.

The balancing process begins, as reelection campaigns must, with the incumbent. His record, particularly in foreign affairs, can't be judged with a simple aye or nay. President Bush rallied the nation after Sept. 11, 2001, and reshaped his own world view. His commitment to a long-term struggle to promote freedom in the Arab world reflects an understanding of the deep threat posed by radical Islamic fundamentalism. His actions have not always matched his stirring rhetoric on the subject, and setbacks to democracy in other parts of the world (notably Russia) appear not to have troubled him much.

But Mr. Bush has accomplished more than his critics acknowledge, both in the practical business of forming alliances to track terrorists and in beginning to reshape a Middle East policy too long centered on accommodating friendly dictators. He has promised the large increases in foreign aid, to help poor nations cope with AIDS and for other purposes, that we believe are essential.

The campaign that Mr. Bush led to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan seems easy and obvious in retrospect, but at the time many people warned of imminent quagmire. Mr. Bush wasted valuable time with his initial determination to avoid nation-building after Kabul fell and his drawdown of U.S. forces. But even so, Afghanistan today is far from the failure that Mr. Kerry portrays. Afghans and U.S. security alike are better off thanks to the intervention.

In Iraq, we do not fault Mr. Bush for believing, as President Clinton before him believed, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. We supported the war and believed that the Iraqi dictator posed a challenge that had to be faced; we continue to believe that the U.S. mission to promote a representative government in Iraq has a chance to leave the United States safer and the Iraqis far better off than they were under their murderous dictator.

We do, however, fault Mr. Bush for exaggerating to the public the intelligence given him privately and for alienating allies unnecessarily. Above all, we fault him for ignoring advice to better prepare for postwar reconstruction. The damage caused by that willful indifference is incalculable. There is no guarantee that Iraq would be more peaceful today if U.S. forces had prevented postwar looting, secured arms depots, welcomed international involvement and transferred authority to Iraqis more quickly. But the chances of success would have been higher. Yet the administration repeatedly rebuffed advice to commit sufficient troops. Its disregard for the Geneva Conventions led to a prison-torture scandal in both Iraq and Afghanistan that has diminished for years, if not decades, the United States' image and influence abroad. In much of the world, in fact, U.S. prestige is at a historic low, partly because of the president's high-handed approach to allies on issues ranging far beyond Iraq.

These failings have a common source in Mr. Bush's cocksureness, his failure to seek advice from anyone outside a narrow circle and his unwillingness to expect the unexpected or adapt to new facts. These are dangerous traits in any president but especially in a wartime leader. They are matched by his failure to admit his errors or to hold senior officials accountable for theirs.

ON THE DOMESTIC side, Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in the House have governed as heavy-handed partisans. We applaud Mr. Bush's campaign to promote accountability in elementary and secondary schools, and some of his other ideas may sound attractive as well: a degree of privatization to give people more control over their retirement funds, individual health accounts that might better match the mobile 21st-century world of work, market incentives to reduce pollution. But he has failed to do the hard work to turn such ideas from slogans into fair and balanced programs, and he has never said how he would pay for them, as in the case of Social Security private accounts.

Which brings us to his reckless fiscal policy. Mr. Bush inherited a budget in surplus but facing strains in the long run as retiring baby boomers intensify their claims on the nation's resources for pensions and health care. A recession that was gathering as he took office, and the economic blow delivered by the Sept. 11 attacks, would have turned surplus into deficit under the best of circumstances.

But Mr. Bush aggravated those circum- stances and drove the deficit to record levels with tax cuts that were inefficient in providing economic stimulus and that were tilted toward the wealthy. Despite the drains on the Treasury from the war in Iraq, he insisted that all the cuts be made permanent; no one, no matter how rich, was asked to sacrifice. Mr. Bush's rationales have shifted, but his prescription -- tax cuts -- has remained constant, no matter what the cost to future generations. The resulting fiscal deficit has dragged down the national savings rate, leaving the country dependent upon foreigners for capital in an unsustainable way. Mr. Bush says the answer lies in spending discipline, but he has shown none himself; see, for example, the disgusting farm subsidies he signed into law.

In 2000, Mr. Bush justifiably criticized his predecessor for failing to deal with the looming problems of Social Security and Medicare. In office, though, he has been equally delinquent, even as the day of reckoning drew closer. He championed a huge new entitlement for Medicare without insisting on the cost-cutting reforms that everyone knows are needed.

SO MR. BUSH HAS not earned a second term. But there is a second question: Has the challenger made his case? Here's why we say yes.

Mr. Kerry, like Mr. Bush, offers no plan to cope with retirement and health costs, but he promises more fiscal realism. He sensibly proposes to reverse Mr. Bush's tax cuts on the wealthiest and pledges to scale back his own spending proposals if funds don't suffice. He would seek to restore budget discipline rules that helped get deficits under control in the 1990s.

On many other issues, Mr. Kerry has the better approach. He has a workable plan to provide health insurance to more Americans; the 45 million uninsured represent a shameful abdication that appears not to have concerned Mr. Bush one whit. Where Mr. Bush ignored the dangers of climate change and favored industry at the expense of clean air and water, Mr. Kerry is a longtime and thoughtful champion of environmental protection. Mr. Bush played politics with the Constitution, as Mr. Kerry would not, by endorsing an amendment to ban gay marriage. Mr. Kerry has pledged to follow the Geneva Conventions abroad and respect civil liberties at home. A Kerry judiciary -- and the next president is likely to make a significant mark on the Supreme Court -- would be more hospitable to civil rights, abortion rights and the right to privacy.

None of these issues would bring us to vote for Mr. Kerry if he were less likely than Mr. Bush to keep the nation safe. But we believe the challenger is well equipped to guide the country in a time of danger. Mr. Kerry brings a résumé that unarguably has prepared him for high office. He understood early on the dangers of non-state actors such as al Qaeda. To pave the way for restored relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, he took on the thankless and politically risky task of convincing relatives that no American prisoners remained in Southeast Asia. While he wrongly opposed the first Persian Gulf War, he supported the use of American force in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As with Mr. Bush, some of Mr. Kerry's strengths strike us as potential weaknesses. The senator is far more likely than Mr. Bush to seek a range of opinions before making a decision -- but is he decisive enough? He understands the importance of allies and of burnishing America's image -- but would he be too reluctant to give offense? His Senate record suggests an understanding of the importance of open markets, but during the campaign he has retreated to protectionist rhetoric that is troubling in its own right and as a possible indicator of inconstancy.

We have been dismayed most of all by Mr. Kerry's zigzags on Iraq, such as his swervings on whether Saddam Hussein presented a threat. As Mr. Bush charges, Mr. Kerry's description of the war as a "diversion" does not inspire confidence in his determination to see it through. But Mr. Kerry has repeatedly pledged not to cut and run from Iraq, and we believe a Kerry administration would be better able to tackle the formidable nation-building tasks that remain there. Mr. Kerry echoes the Bush goals of an elected Iraqi government and a well-trained Iraqi force to defend it but argues that he could implement the strategy more effectively.

Mr. Kerry understands that the biggest threat to U.S. security comes from terrorists wielding nuclear or biological weapons. He pledges to add two divisions to the U.S. Army; try harder to secure nuclear weapons and materials around the world, and improve U.S. preparations for a bioterrorism attack. There is no way to know whether he would be more successful than Mr. Bush in slowing North Korea's and Iran's march toward becoming nuclear-armed states, but he attaches the right priority to both problems. He is correct that those challenges, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, call for the kind of sustained diplomacy that has been missing for four years. We hope he would be firmer than Mr. Bush in standing up to the genocide unfolding in Sudan.

We do not view a vote for Mr. Kerry as a vote without risks. But the risks on the other side are well known, and the strengths Mr. Kerry brings are considerable. He pledges both to fight in Iraq and to reach out to allies; to hunt down terrorists, and to engage without arrogance the Islamic world. These are the right goals, and we think Mr. Kerry is the better bet to achieve them.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company