Little girls know makeup has something to do with being grown up. But when they try it on, they tend to overdo it.

Likewise, John Kerry knows "values" have something to do with getting elected president. But he uses the word promiscuously, almost randomly, betraying overeagerness and a lack of understanding.

"In the end, it's about values," Kerry declared at a gathering of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition last month. On June 27, The New York Times reports, "Mr. Kerry used the V-word no fewer than eight times in a 36-minute speech to Hispanic leaders." At a July 9 rally in Beaver, West Virginia, "Mr. Kerry attached the word 'value' to virtually every line of his standard stump speech."

Why all the talk of values? In Beaver, Kerry explained that "a president of the United States makes value judgments every single day." As opposed to the rest of us, who wouldn't know a value if it poked us in the eye.

Sometimes Kerry himself seems a little shaky on the concept. Are values one thing or many things? Are they always good or sometimes bad? From his speeches, it's hard to tell.

In Baltimore on June 28, Kerry said the election is "a values choice" between tax cuts for the wealthy and funding for inner-city youth programs. So far, so good. But then he closed by saying, "My value is with these kids and with the future of this city," an odd construction that made it sound as if he were talking about his usefulness rather than his principles.

On July 9 in Manhattan, Kerry criticized the Bush administration for not prosecuting Enron CEO Kenneth Lay quickly enough. "Values are putting the full force of the Justice Department on Day 1 in an effort not to take three years and a few months before an election before you bring Ken Lay to justice," he said.

Kerry's point seems to be not that George W. Bush has bad values but that he has no values at all. If so, how can the election be a "values choice"?

Maybe Kerry is referring to his own choice of values, which seems to depend on the audience he's addressing. In his speech to Hispanic leaders, he talked about "our values as a country built by immigrants." Speaking to service workers in San Francisco last month, he emphasized "the value of service." In a July 2 speech in Cloquet, Minnesota, he lauded the "values that are rooted in the heartland."

It was also in Cloquet that Kerry laid claim to "conservative values," poaching on the president's territory (though, to be fair, Bush started it by stealing compassion from the Democrats). "It's hard to square that statement with his previous statement when he said, 'I'm a liberal and proud of it,' " Bush responded, accusing Kerry of being "out of step with the mainstream values that are so important to our country."

The examples Bush and his campaign cited to show that Kerry is no conservative were telling: They noted that the senator voted against funding for the war in Iraq, opposed the federal ban on "partial birth" abortions, and resisted the administration's efforts to give tax dollars to religious groups that offer social services. A true conservative, apparently, supports war aimed not at defense but at remaking the world in our image; favors overriding state decisions about how to regulate abortion; and thinks it's a fine idea to coerce charity and make religious organizations dependent on government largess.

In short, Kerry is on to something when he says Bush does not truly stand for conservative values. On spending, trade, civil liberties, and federalism, the president has been a bitter disappointment to supporters of limited government. His main appeal to conservatives now is his backing for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages—a proposal that betrays a decidedly unconservative attitude toward our founding document and the system of government it established.

Which is not to say that Kerry has a more constrained vision of the federal government's powers. At a July 4 barbecue in Independence, Iowa, where he faulted Bush for lack of fealty to conservative values, he implied it's the president's responsibility to make sure people do not pay too much for medicine, education, or child care.

Maybe that's what Kerry means by good values: Under his administration, we'll all get more for our money.