To Win, Kerry Will Have to Answer Hard Questions

The boost to George W. Bush's poll ratings after the Republican convention, so different from the tepid response to John Kerry's endeavors in Boston, surprised this foreign observer of American politics. It seemed to me that the president had a lot to explain and some questions to answer. Judging by his speech and demeanor, he didn't think so—and, evidently, a lot of America has no problem with that.

I am a Bush supporter on key aspects of his foreign policy, but I found little to like in the president's speech. It barely acknowledged the setbacks in Iraq, many of which are due to the administration's incompetence. And so far as domestic policy is concerned, Bush combined an appeal to the Religious Right with a pitch to the center based on a staggeringly expensive list of new spending proposals. He gave no indication at all of how he would pay for these, or that he even understood that, in the end, they would have to be paid for.

Nonetheless, the post-convention bounce is a good thing for the vitality of political debate between now and the election. Up to now, Kerry's supporters have done their man no favors by demanding almost nothing of him. Their expectation was that Bush would defeat himself. To them, the president's incompetence and bad faith were self-evident. So long as the challenger did not make some grievous error, all would be well in November.

Of course, with the television debates still to come, the view that Bush will self-destruct might yet be vindicated. Bush is at risk in those debates in a way that Ronald Reagan was not. Reagan triumphed in this setting, despite his inarticulacy and less-than-intimate acquaintance with his notes, because he came over as warm, sincere, and enormously likable. Bush plays the same hand, of course, and for all it is worth, but by no means as reliably: There is a peevish and intolerant side to this president, not always well suppressed, which Reagan entirely lacked. If Bush is provoked into letting that show in the debates, he will be in trouble.

His trustworthiness is very much in question also—over the handling of intelligence, but across a range of other issues, too. You could argue that much of his domestic agenda was based on a deception: He told the electorate in 2000 that he was a moderate, but he has governed as something else. This gap between what Bush claimed to be and what he is will be another hazard in the debates. He might yet lose the election with no help from Kerry. But the conventions make this look less likely. Suddenly, as a result, zealous anti-Bush commentators are turning to Kerry and saying, "Explain yourself. Start getting your message over. Defend your policies for a change."

This new eagerness to debate policy, as opposed to merely celebrating Bush's fathomless awfulness and Kerry's Vietnam-era credentials, should help the Democrats. People who think that Michael Moore is a dispassionate analyst and who would vote for any anti-Bush candidate not under criminal indictment do not count in this campaign. Why should they care what Kerry thinks? They will vote Democrat regardless. Equally, nothing Kerry says will change the mind of a Bush tribal loyalist. The election will turn on the views of people who might switch sides. Many of these want to know what a Kerry presidency would be like.

This week, Kerry reached out to the skeptical and wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal, tersely titled "My Economic Policy." It began with the now-familiar—and largely justified—criticisms of the administration, focusing on the exploding budget deficit and the tax cuts (which Kerry rightly says were a relatively ineffective way to provide needed fiscal stimulus). Kerry then went on to state his four-point economic plan.

First, "create good jobs," chiefly by attempting to discourage outsourcing (a mostly bad idea, which I discussed in a previous column). Second, "cut middle-class taxes and health costs." Third, "restore America's competitive edge," mainly by supporting research, including stem-cell research, and by subsidizing the adoption of new technologies such as broadband. Fourth, "cut the deficit and restore economic confidence," mainly by reforming the budget process—with spending caps and a "pay-as-you-go" rule, to require that proposals for new spending have a corresponding revenue-raising plan attached.

This is still pretty meager, in my view. And it has other Kerry characteristics. The problem is not just that the program is vague, it is also that Kerry is better at stating goals than at explaining how he will achieve them. The article rightly deplores the uncontrolled expansion of government borrowing under the Bush administration and pledges to do something about it. But the remedies are almost entirely procedural: the caps and pay-as-you-go. There is no sense of what these might imply for tax increases or specific cuts in spending. But the point about caps and pay-as-you-go is that, if they are to squeeze the deficit, they must impose one or both of those unpleasant solutions. They will work only to the extent that taxes go up and/or spending goes down. If taxes go down and spending keeps going up, the caps will be broken and abandoned, and paygo will be become an irrelevance. It would not be the first time that such procedural constraints have been set aside.

Kerry does signal his willingness to raise taxes on the very rich and to cut "corporate welfare," but he knows—or let us hope he knows—that neither of these can conceivably close the colossal budget hole that the Bush administration has opened up.

In any case, most of what he says in the rest of the article and in his stump speech on economic policy is concerned with his own plans to cut taxes (albeit not the ones that Bush has cut) and to increase spending. "Under my plan, the tax cuts would be extended and made permanent for 98 percent of Americans. In addition, I support new tax cuts for college, child care, and health care—in total, more than twice as large as the new tax cuts President Bush is proposing." Also, Kerry regards the Bush administration's patently unaffordable plan for Medicare as too mean: The envisaged increase in premiums is an outrage, he believes. Even as he heralds the restoration of fiscal responsibility under his brave, unflinching leadership, and talks sagely about the urgent need for spending caps and pay-as-you-go, the man is boasting about the size of his planned tax cuts, and pledging to pour additional billions into Medicare's gaping maw.

Kerry deserves credit for at least acknowledging that the budget deficit is storing trouble for the American economy and for inviting discussion about how it can be narrowed. The Bush team is incapable even of that. The administration's position on the deficit, judging actions, not words, is that the issue does not matter. Taxes can be cut and spending increased in effect without limit. Borrowing, chiefly from abroad, will allow America to have its cake and eat it, too, and this process need never come to an end. Kerry is right to say that this is nonsense. But if he believes that it is nonsense, and expects to be taken seriously, then he had better offer a substantive plan for increasing taxes and cutting spending. To call for caps and pay-as-you-go is to ask somebody else to do that job—but who is that going to be?

This fondness for process over substance, and a reluctance to confront underlying issues, keeps cropping up. In foreign policy, Kerry's high regard for multilateralism and the United Nations is a variant. But you see it elsewhere, too.

The current issues of Science and Nature put a series of questions to both candidates about science policy and, in particular, policy on the environment. This is interesting: You would have expected the answers to be very different. Bush is vilified as no other recent president by most environmentalists, and Kerry is seen in those quarters as more or less the dream candidate. Yet Kerry comes across, much as he does on budget policy, as Bush-lite. And again the disagreements, such as they are, are often procedural. For instance, unlike Bush, Kerry expresses interest in a cap-and-trade regime for the control of greenhouse-gas emissions. This would set quotas for emissions and allow them to be bought and sold. It is a good idea: If you are going to cut emissions, this would reduce the cost. But two questions still need to be answered. How far would American emissions be reduced, and by what means? This is the hard part. Kerry does not know, or will not say.

If not on this hard question, then on others, Kerry is going to have to say. Otherwise, surprisingly enough, Bush is going to win.