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E.J. Dionne Jr.

A Test of Toughness

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page A15

In a purely technical sense, you have to admire President Bush's campaign for its skill in shaping public perceptions and in grasping at any and every opportunity to make his opponent look bad.

When John Kerry said he still would have voted to give the president the authority to wage war in Iraq, the Bushies accused Kerry of being a flip-flopper.

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How can sticking with a past vote make you a flip-flopper? Well, Kerry -- like many Americans -- is now critical of how Bush waged this war and how he failed to plan for its aftermath. The Bushies seem to be saying that Kerry should have known better than to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.

Kerry has said he would repeal the parts of the Bush tax cuts that favor Americans earning more than $200,000 a year. But Bush continues to scare people by implying that Kerry wants to raise taxes on everybody.

"We are not going to let him wreck that economy by running up our taxes," Bush told a crowd in Beaverton, Ore., last Friday. The president left unmentioned that the "our" in that sentence referred to the president himself and to his wealthy contributors -- but not to most Americans.

Democrats put themselves in a good mood with the thought that the president's attacks on Kerry and his distortions of the Democratic nominee's positions are a tacit admission of weakness. Unlike Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bush cannot claim that this is "morning again in America."

And Bush certainly doesn't want to talk about the facts laid out by a Congressional Budget Office report on Friday that one-third of his tax cuts over the past three years went to people who earned an average of $1.2 million annually.

Households with incomes in the top 1 percent received an average tax cut of $78,460 this year. Households in the middle 20 percent -- they average about $57,000 a year -- received an average cut of $1,090. That is a 72 to 1 ratio in favor of the millionaires.

It would not be a bad thing if this campaign turned into a referendum on Bush's effort to shift taxes from wealth to work. But to move the debate in that direction, Kerry has to be as tough and strategic as Bush has been, and a lot crisper in explaining what he stands for.

Kerry did seize on the CBO report and also on Bush's comment that a national sales tax was "an interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously." The White House moved quickly to play down the idea that Bush had any plans to impose a consumption tax. Here was Bush's defense of his comment to Larry King on CNN: "This is politics. People put words in your mouth." But unless I'm missing something, Bush is the one and only person who put those words into his own mouth. Bush's people would be jumping all over a comparable gaffe -- another word for an admission of a real but hidden belief by Kerry.

Bush has given Kerry an extraordinary gift with the sales tax comment. But Kerry has still not taken full advantage of it.

If Kerry needs an even stronger offense on domestic issues, he also needs a much better defense of that Iraq vote of his. It really isn't so hard. When Bush went to Congress in the fall of 2002 for authorization to go to war in Iraq, he did so after saying he was going to the United Nations to seek international support for a war against Saddam Hussein.

Yes, the congressional resolution empowering Bush to wage war was far broader than it should have been. But when push came to shove, Kerry decided to take the chance in voting "yes" to strengthen Bush's hand in negotiating with the United Nations. That seeking U.N. support was never really a Bush priority and that he botched the postwar planning is the president's problem, not Kerry's. Why can't Kerry keep it that simple?

The mere suggestion by Kerry that his approach to Iraq would be more "sensitive" than the president's was used by the Bush campaign to produce days of news stories last week challenging Kerry's toughness. The real tests of Kerry's toughness will be whether he can explain himself clearly and whether he can force Bush to defend views that the president would prefer that the public not know he holds.

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