Stretch Fun

Kerry looks for something, anything to run on


Charlotte—Last week President George W. Bush dropped by the site of the annual Southern Women's Show (don't ask) to greet supporters convinced the end was near.

"George Bush is a man of prayer, getting guidance from God. He's setting things up for the end times. The Lord is getting ready to come back, and George Bush knows that," one Bush supporter explained.

Thanks Cap'n Predestination. Even so, it is the Kerry campaign that sees Armageddon around the bend. Recent poll results put John Kerry in a catch-up role, one which has forced him off of his turgid pace and into attack mode. The obvious goal is to find some issue that cuts deep enough to merit using against Bush in the upcoming debates.

Excepting a Pew poll which put him one point down nationally, a poll which featured some odd questions and very slim one-point spread between registered and likely voters, Kerry looks to be in danger of losing touch with Bush before November. Other national polls like Gallup give Bush a double-digit lead while measures of vital swing states also put Kerry on the short end of the tally.

Most troubling for the Kerry camp has to be the new Knight Ridder-MSNBC poll of several key states which shows Bush pulling ahead in the zero-sum race for electoral votes. The poll puts Bush ahead in Ohio with a 49-42 lead and no formula for a Kerry victory can surmount losses in any two of the Ohio-Pennsylvania-Florida trifecta. And Florida just became that much harder for Kerry, with the state Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for Ralph Nader to claim chad-space on the ballot.

These developments have left the Kerry camp, if not desperate, then certainly eager to find something to reverse the tide. This explains the seeming scatter-shot series of Kerry thrusts in recent days—on the economy, on Halliburton, and on Iraq as the campaign searched to find something that clicked. So far, few clicks.

Kerry's economic program as detailed in a speech in Detroit last week principally consists of criticizing Bush without offering real alternatives. Kerry tried to hit big GOP deficits, but with little effect. There is simply no way for a Kerry administration to close Bushian budget deficits by taxing those who make over $200,000 a year, as Kerry's class warfare rhetoric suggests. There just is not enough money to be had from the relatively few taxpayers with AGIs at that level.

Still, "I'm an entrepreneurial Democrat," Kerry says, Just make sure your small biz doesn't do too well.

This line of attack on Bush bypasses a warped tax code which actually hit middle-class taxpayers with radically different rates due to all the special tax breaks Congress enacted in recent years. Bush's own Treasury Department has noted that those making between $32-34,000 actually pay a higher rate on their income, almost 44 percent, than do taxpayers earning between $35,000 and $71,000, who pay almost 23 percent.

But Kerry's economic program is silent on such fundamental issues as marginal tax rates. Instead, he trotted out tired proposals for educational tax credits, child care tax credits, and health care tax credits. Give Kerry credit, he is fond of tax credits, which is shorthand for spending your money just as the feds think you should.

This program is not enough of a real, substantial vision upon which to base a challenge to an incumbent, tax-cutting president. The average voter simply hears that Bush wants to cut taxes a lot, Kerry a little. Uh, maybe. If you do the right thing.

Not surprising then that Kerry veered from economic issues into an attack on Dick Cheney and Halliburton. Whether this reflects the bulldog influence of newly elevated Clintonian advisors or a simple hail-mary attempt, running against the VP is seldom a path to the White House.

This suggests that the war in Iraq is literally the only thing Kerry has left to run on or against, depending. Kerry is clearly trying to find a combination of attacks and explanations that put him somewhere other than splitting hairs with Bush administration policy in advance of the debates. Kerry's most coherent path might be to simply say that he made a mistake in voting for the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and see how that polls. Otherwise Kerry runs the risk of entering the final weeks of the campaign both trailing and without any cutting issue with which separate himself from Bush.

Democrats must be wondering if it had to be so. Paging Howard Dean?