May 13, 2004


BY RICHARD REEVES | Universal Press Syndicate

WASHINGTON -- "Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme in Campaign Against Bush" was a headline in The New York Times the other day. As a matter of fact, it seems the Times runs that headline almost every day -- and so do other newspapers across the country.

Well, how about this for a theme: "I am not George W. Bush!"

I know we are supposed to follow the "presumptive" Democratic candidate around and write down what he says. But that doesn't mean it matters. Going to the fine print, a caption under a Times photograph on page 20 last Thursday read: "Sen. John Kerry spoke about health care yesterday in Orlando, Fla., but the Bush campaign hears only his comments about Iraq."

The point of the story above was that folks in the White House say Kerry is "politicizing" the war. Imagine that?

At the moment, without benefit of a national polling organization, I get the impression that Americans of all political persuasions are actually hearing almost nothing Kerry says. This election is not about Kerry; it is about Bush. Presidential elections are almost always referenda on incumbents, this one more than most. We have a strong leader who may be going in the wrong direction. Kerry may get to play the 1980 Ronald Reagan role when the lightly regarded former governor of California ran against Jimmy Carter, a weak leader going in the wrong direction.

As the nation focused on hostages held in Iran, inflation, and interest rates in the 20-percent range, all Reagan had to do was stand there and look like a plausible alternative to Carter. The economy looks better now than it did in 1980 -- although people with three jobs and no health care may disagree with that -- but the American role in the world looks a lot less predictable. Iraq looks like Iran on steroids -- and Bush could end up looking worse than Carter did.

Or maybe it is Vietnam on amphetamines. There was an astounding flashback, last Wednesday, when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, told a Senate hearing: "There is no way to militarily lose in Iraq. There is also no way to militarily win in Iraq."

Been there, heard that. We did not lose militarily in Vietnam. We lost politically and morally. And by that I do not mean that we were less moral than the communists or the North Vietnamese. I mean we were less moral than we claimed to be.

President Bush has many of the virtues of the strong leader, including courage, determination, steadfastness and loyalty to his subordinates. But he seems to have no sense of history and no sense of where he is taking the United States.

And it is not only his political opponents who have noticed this. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a conservative Republican who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, gave the Landon Lecture two weeks ago at his alma mater, Kansas State University, and spent most of his time lavishly praising the leadership qualities of his party's leader. Then after saying that the United States must be willing to use force unilaterally to protect national security and the security of our allies, he said this:

"I do have a word of caution and warning. Whether or not the United States views itself as an empire, it is obvious that for many foreigners and international critics, we look, walk and talk like one, and they have responded accordingly. An empire that displays weakness and is not taken seriously is in serious trouble.

"However, being perceived as capricious or imperious is also dangerous. The problem has often occurred when an imperial power insists on imposing a particular vision on the world. It seems to me that in fighting the global war against terrorism, we need to restrain what are growing United States messianic instincts -- a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy -- by force if necessary."

Obviously, Senator Roberts senses we may be on the wrong road. If Senator Kerry said that right now, he might be ignored. What else is new if a campaigning Democrat talks that way? But it might be useful as a theme for Kerry if he gets to make an inaugural speech next January.