EDITORIAL 

Keeping It Competitive

For a minute there, we were worried. When the Republican Party concluded its nominating convention (read: coronation ceremony) last week, President George W. Bush promptly ascended to a double-digit lead over Democrat John Kerry in a couple of the major polls, and the nation seemed doomed to watching another one of those prolonged death marches -- avoided in recent times only by the agile and charismatic Bill Clinton -- in which the Democratic nominee would slog his way inexorably to defeat.

Things may still turn out that way, but the latest polls show that Kerry has arrested his slide (or, alternatively, Bush has come somewhat back to earth), and there still might be a competitive presidential race after all -- with a number of key states still regarded as problematic for either candidate.

We welcome that uncertainty for a number of reasons. First among them has to be the fact that we were unconvinced by the glib generalizations floated in Madison Square Garden last week concerning President Bush's handle on the overriding questions of war and peace. We are especially dubious about the course of the ongoing war in Iraq, where August was an especially lethal month for the American troops -- largely underequipped reservists -- still engaged there. Nor do we discern much to comfort us in the president's vague proposals for an "ownership" society. We're somewhat intrigued by his call for drastic revisions in the nation's tax structure, but our fear is that what he has in mind is the same old tax largesse for corporations and the wealthy, writ large.

Beyond our doubts about the president's policies, however, is a simple belief that the nation is entitled to the kind of genuine dialogue concerning its future that only a competitive election can ensure. We trust that something like that will emerge from the series of forthcoming debates between the two major candidates, but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that the absence of such a dialogue so far has owed as much to Democrat Kerry's fecklessness as to dissembling on Bush's part.

To the extent that the Republican campaign team was in league with the swift-boat prevaricators who managed for a solid month to keep Kerry on the defensive concerning his war record in Vietnam, we say shame on them. But that shame is two-edged. Kerry is entitled to bear his share of it for failing to use his own party convention in Boston to establish much more than the fact of his meritorious service in Vietnam a generation ago. Once that fact could be brought into question -- and, in effect, neutralized -- he was left with very little that was both tangible and clearly articulated in his candidacy.

That was then, this is now, and there is still time for both candidates to contribute something other than platitudes and evasions to the election process. Remembering all too keenly the spoiler role played in 2000 by third-party candidate Ralph Nader, we have not been advocates of his being granted a place on the platform for any of the nationally televised debates. And we still shudder to think of what the effect of his candidacy might be in several of the battleground states, where he would certainly take more votes away from Democrat Kerry than from Republican Bush, altering the outcome of the electoral vote as he seems clearly to have done in both Florida and New Hampshire in 2000.

But if it takes the presence of Nader to force both Bush and Kerry off their dimes and to get them to think seriously and out loud about issues, then we'd be prepared to rethink that whole matter.

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