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For president

October 17, 2004 1:10 am

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The Free Lance-Star endorsement

WHEN CONSIDERING the political endorsement of an incumbent, a practical way to proceed is to ask whether past performance justifies retention: Does he deserve to be "rehired"? This is the crucial question most Americans are asking--actually, most long ago answered it--about George W. Bush. You have probably not met a person who says, "I love John F. Kerry and I always have!" The Nov. 2 election is fundamentally a referendum on the policies of the president.

The arguments against renewing Mr. Bush's contract to lead this nation are weighty. At a time when federal entitlements consume more than half the federal budget (versus 26.1 percent in 1962), and when the graying of the baby-boom generation mandates entitlement reform, Mr. Bush launched a "traditional" Medicare drug benefit estimated to cost at least $425 billion over 10 years--not exactly an elixir for a program that already faces unfunded liabilities of over $33 trillion. Indeed, the growth of government under Mr. Bush, a growth for which Congress shares blame, has been dizzying. The first three years of his administration saw non-defense discretionary federal spending soar 23 percent, in part because--Mr. Kerry is correct--the president viewed his veto pen as an unclean object.

Other objectionable policies that did their bit to help swell the fiscal Red Sea include the No Child Left Behind Act--a federal intrusion into K-12 education that, though well intended, is one cook too many. Most states already have addressed their public-ed shortcomings by mandating minimum standards (e.g., Virginia's SOLs); federal kibitzing merely creates a bureaucratic muddle. Furthermore, the only surpluses about which Mr. Bush seems to deeply care are those on the P&L sheets of mega-businesses. This credo animates, for just one example, his environmental policies. Recall Dick Cheney's plutocratic and secretive energy task force, which lacked even a token green voice.

Poor marks also go to Mr. Bush for communication. By this we do not mean a lack of glibness or his penchant for words most kindly described as extra-Websterian. What we mean is the president's failure to talk squarely with the American people, especially when the nation encounters reverses abroad. As post-Saddam Iraq gets bloodier by the month, as misgivings about America's intervention grow, the country looks to the president for reassurance and the articulation of a better plan. If one hears anything at all from this president, it is a perfect defense of past decisions, a simple-minded optimism that hardly jibes with wet red facts. Americans should worry about the conduct of a war whose leaders require of them no greater tax burden to wage it, have categorically ruled out a military draft ("Never say never," cautioned Ronald Reagan), and utter no word designed to cause--worry.

All this and more constitutes a case to hire as the country's leader someone else. But someone else is not the available option. John Kerry is. And whatever Mr. Bush's flaws, Mr. Kerry's are more fundamental and, at this juncture in history, more dangerous.

Mr. Kerry's career in the public arena has been, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, both long and remarkable--however, the long part is not remarkable and the remarkable part is not long. Or good. As a young man, Mr. Kerry returned from decorated service in South Vietnam to flamboyantly equate Americans there with the armies of Genghis Khan. Aside from pinning three Black Hearts--criminal/loser/victim--on better men than himself, Mr. Kerry ably served the purposes of America's enemies, the brutal collectivists who with him sought immediate U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kerry's 20-year U.S. Senate record hardly dazzles. Do not feel bad if you are a Kerry supporter and cannot name one piece of significant legislation he has authored--neither recently could the chairman of the national Democratic Party. What's most telling about the Kerry record, in 2004, is his consistency in being wrong about national-security issues before 2004. In the early '80s, he favored a nuclear freeze, which would have blocked the European missile deployment that helped bring the Soviet bear to bay. He fought Reagan's military support of Central American forces in countries that are now democracies because of that support.

Perhaps most illuminating is his vote on Gulf War I in 1991. The first President Bush had secured U.N. approval for military action to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Bush the Elder then put together a force of 34 countries, representing every continent but Antarctica. Other nations--especially the Gulf states, Germany, and Japan--picked up most of bill. In other words, the First Gulf War met what Mr. Kerry calls "the global test," and met it in spades. He voted against fighting it.

Which is to say that George W. Bush is not the only candidate with a record; John F. Kerry has one also, and it should be a red flag to Americans in a dangerous day. Mr. Bush has made serious mistakes in judgment; Mr. Kerry's error is writ in his heart. His are not the convictions to take the fight to an enemy that sees 9/11 as a prelude, or to scour the Earth of a threat to liberty whose precursors, as both antiwar vet and U.S. senator, he more often sought to relieve than resist.

In a second term, Mr. Bush says that he aims to partly privatize Social Security, which would eventually shrink federal spending more radically than any programmatic tinkering. He will, we judge, persevere in Iraq and in the larger conflict with neo-barbarism. The country's economic foundation and, more crucially, its physical security are safer if he wins a second term, and we endorse his re-election.





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