- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Sen. John McCain predicts that the 2004 presidential campaign could be the “nastiest” in history. Animosity between many Republicans and Democrats borders on the irrational. Lewis Carroll, responsible for sending Alice to Wonderland, offers a glimpse of what could lie ahead if Mr. McCain is right. If we are not careful, as Carroll put it, both sides of the aisle will be tempted to follow “the regular course ? the different branches of arithmetic — ambition, distraction, uglification and derision.”

So far, issues such as military service in the Vietnam War, Mel Gibson’s new movie and a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages have obscured the truly serious challenges to the nation’s future safety, security and prosperity. This election should be about the latter and what can be done, rather than a nasty excursion that tarnishes both candidates and turns the electorate off.

It is fair for Democrats to challenge the president’s judgment and credibility. That critique most likely will take this line. The president took the nation to war based on the belief that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein’s control were a “grave and gathering threat.” He signed a prescription-drug bill that underestimated costs by about $150 billion. Last week, the White House annual economic report that predicted creating 2.6 million new jobs was quickly repudiated. The Congressional Budget Office just disputed the White House claim of cutting the budget deficit in half in the out years. And so on.

But critique without alternative is irresponsible. To date, and despite Web sites packed with policy solutions, not all remedies are beyond the rhetorical stage. For example, Sen. John Kerry, the heir apparent, promises “a stronger, more comprehensive and more effective strategy for winning the war on terror than the Bush administration has ever envisaged.” However, his corresponding plan for corrective action does not sound as muscular as the criticism.

When it comes to raising issues, the nation cannot allow the campaign to emulate Alice’s tea with the March Hare. “Have some,” the March Hare said to Alice. But, “I don’t see any,” she said. That’s because “there isn’t any,” the hare retorted.

What is needed is a real debate on issues of national safety and security that eschews platitudes and slogans and gets to what FDR’s trusted aid Harry Hopkins called the “heart of the matter.” Hearts of the matter must define the differences between the candidates.

First, regarding the most pressing issues of national security, Iraq and the war on terror, President Bush can clearly define his thinking. He is, surprisingly perhaps, Wilsonian in outlook. President Wilson believed that American power should be used to create a better world. Wilson won the war to “end all wars,” and then lost the peace. Mr. Bush believes that American power can “transform the strategic landscape of the Greater Middle East” for the best. Democratizing Iraq is the central pillar of this strategy and of the war on terror. Today, however, America cannot afford to lose this peace as it did after 1918. If Democrats disagree with the president, is that dissent over the president’sstrategic propositions, how they are being carried out or for some other reason? And, regardless, what are better alternatives?

Second, in waging the global war on terror, the administrationhas adopted an offensive strategy to “root” out the “evil ones” and those who support them beyond America’s shores. Mr. Kerry calls for denying “terrorists sanctuary in every cave and with every tool.” The differences appear minor, with both candidates attacking the symptoms of terror — the terrorists — and not the causes. But what do the candidates suggest to deal with the causes of what threatens us most?

Third is the “900-pound gorilla” of politics, the economy. The Bush view is that “investment” in permanent tax cuts and deficit spending will catalyze economic growth, ultimately adding jobs. The Democratic alternative appears to be Clintonomics II, balancing the budget through a mix of spending restraints, achieving higher revenues by reversing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and providing new programs for creating jobs. These are real differences that should produce real debate. But will they?

This column has argued that the danger facing the nation is far greater than the physical damage terrorists, even with frightening weapons, can do. Terror is a tool and tactic for much broader political ambitions — creating a fundamentalist regime somewhere in the Greater Middle East propped up by Saudi money and protected by access to Pakistani nuclear weapons. The reality is that this warning has not surfaced on anyone’s looking glass yet.

Returning to Carroll, “take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.” Or will the campaign be defined by “No, no, sentence first — verdict afterward.” On these answers the nation’s future safety and security will depend.

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