John Kerry is not George W. Bush -- and for a lot of us, that's reason enough to vote for Kerry come November. But reason enough for a majority of voters? I doubt it.
The problems with Bush are (for those who would vote for virtually anyone else) obvious and important. He has tilted the economy toward the rich and away from the middle class. He is heavily influenced by "neocons" whose foreign-policy ideas are well outside the American mainstream -- and, because he came to office innocent of foreign-policy experience or interest, he has no personal core to which to return.
Most of all, though, is the fact that he led America into a quite unnecessary war in Iraq -- and into the resultant bloody mess there now. In the name of fighting terrorism, he has greatly increased its appeal in the Arab world. He seems, moreover, likely -- through misstep and inadvertence -- to play into the Holy War hopes of certain Islamic fanatics, including Osama bin Laden.
But if Bush is frightening -- in part because he so dogmatically believes what he believes -- Kerry is frustrating and infuriating because he seems not to believe much of anything worth risking offense.
The Republican charge against Kerry is that he flip-flops -- voting, for instance, to authorize the president to go to war against Iraq, then criticizing him for doing so. That charge is easily answered: To stay with your old conclusion long after the basis for it has been exploded is not consistency but madness.
No, what infuriates about Kerry is his wish to be all things to all people -- or, at any rate, not to give them any basis for attacking him. He has, as far as I can tell, staked out a single position that might be called controversial: He would repeal the tax cuts for the rich.
But nearly everything else he says or does seems calculated to avoid clear-cut disagreement with people on either side of any issue. Thus he "voted for [the $87 billion supplemental military budget] before I voted against it." Thus he differs with the president on what he would do to extricate us from Iraq, but has offered no discernible policy. Thus he parses every statement to the point where even he must wonder what he said. Thus he (to return to his Vietnam War protest days) didn't return his "medals," but only the "ribbons" that represent them.
And I don't know what to make of the controversy over his wartime heroism and the Swift boat incident, except to say that the details of his indisputably valiant war service more than 30 years ago shouldn't be a matter of significance in this election.
But little things become big issues for Kerry because he refuses to stake out positions on the big things. Maybe, with the polls showing him in a virtual dead heat with Bush, he doesn't want to frighten the "undecideds." Well, if I were undecided (and, frankly, I would be if Kerry were pitted against Bush I instead of his scary son) I'd find Kerry's super-carefulness off-putting.
Is Kerry acting on advice of his political advisers, or does he really have no important and articulable policy differences with the man he would replace? If the former, it strikes me as questionable advice; if the latter, it suggests a president who would be weak on leadership.
A lot of us will vote for him because he's not W. But, as I say, it may not be enough.