Reality Test 

Reality Test

Though formal campaigning of a sort continues in national Democratic ranks (when will John Edwards say "enough"? -- not to mention Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich), the outlines of a fall presidential campaign begin to seem clear.

Barring celestial intervention, it would seem that Massachusetts senator John Kerry will be the Democratic standard-bearer against Republican incumbent George W. Bush. The matter of running mates remains to be settled -- for both parties, evidently, since Vice President Dick Cheney is evidently no longer regarded as a sure thing -- but Kerry-Bush will be the main show in any case.

The more we think about it, Kerry seems a more apt choice than erstwhile Democratic front-runner Dean. The former Vermont governor made crucial -- and timely -- sense a year ago when he was almost alone in decrying the Bush tax cuts and the president's plans for a preemptive war in Iraq. We applauded Dean's position then, even as we lamented the decision by Kerry and others to vote so as to provide the president with cover on both issues.

What's done is done, however, and as a nominee Kerry may be uniquely able to focus national attention not on the sterile point of what we should have done way back when but on the present-tense dilemma of what we can do to bring about peace and international comity in Iraq -- and to extricate American forces from their present sitting-duck solitude there. Similarly, Kerry -- who wants to retain some middle-class tax cuts -- can concentrate without interruption on the bottom-line issue, that of tax breaks to those making more than $200,000 a year.

It is remarkable how the histories of the two Bush administrations -- that of George I from 1989 to 1993, and that of the current George -- parallel each other. Each of the two presided over an Iraqi war that seemed more successful at first than it later proved to be. Each encountered difficulties in steering the economy. And each fell precipitately from grace with the electorate. The current President Bush has seen his polls tumble radically in just three weeks' time.

Like the election in 1992 which saw Democrat Bill Clinton elevated to the presidency, the election of 2004 amounts to a reality test. The issue is not whether Kerry is a perfect human being -- any more than Clinton was -- but whether he has a firmer grasp of the problems facing our nation at a time of crisis than the incumbent.

That, far more than questions of past military service or private peccadilloes, is what we'll have to base our decision on.

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