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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Kerry's roads not taken

WASHINGTON
SUPPOSE WE had a president, with barely seven months in office, pushing Congress to confront the energy crisis and stop the insane importing of oil from the Middle East.

That was the road not taken before Katrina, remember?

Suppose we had a president who had challenged the lobbyist-run Congress long before Katrina produced gargantuan costs that cannot be paid honestly: His veto would block the extension of those juicy tax cuts for wealthy investors that expire in a few years in order to force a reestablishment of the best Social Security reform of all -- fiscal sanity.

That was another road not taken, remember?

And imagine a restoration of Bill Clinton's simple proposition that recovery from disasters, natural or terrorist, is too important to be left to incompetent political cronies, and is led by a guy who is delightfully ignorant of patronage politics.

Still another road not taken.

As John Kerry had the temerity to say this week in Rhode Island: ''Today more than ever, when the path taken last year and four years earlier takes us into a wilderness of missed opportunities, we need to keep defining the critical choices over and over, offering a direction not taken but still open in the future."

Or, as he also said, ''Katrina reminds us that too often the political contests of our time have been described like football games with color commentary: One team of consultants against another, red states against blue states, Democratic money against Republican money; a contest of height versus hair -- sometimes. But the truth is democracy is not a game; we are losing precious time each day in a different America than the one we can inhabit if we make different choices."

I am aware how chic it is during the year following a presidential election to jump down the throat of the poor slob who lost, trumpeting a hindsight that wasn't clear until long past midnight on Election Day. Deconstructing Kerry's screed the other day would also be easy in that honored context -- except for one little point.

A great many Americans have been first shocked and then angered at the mess Bush has made of his reelection this year, even before a botched response to a tragic event made them furious. Kerry spoke for them this week, calling Bush out after a grotesque campaign that sold the absurd proposition that only the president could keep the nation safe and secure and that Kerry couldn't.

In letting loose on what he aptly called the Katrina administration, Kerry reminded me of a more enduring truth about postelection politics. The out party is actually at its best, not its worst, when it offers a diversity of approaches as the endless cycle continues. For a disparate collection of potential voters, the picture is more like a cafeteria line. You can pick genuine outrage at what has transpired (Kerry); you can press an issue that emphasizes the future and your past (John Edwards on poverty); you can even stay relatively quiet in the knowledge that the 2008 nomination won't be decided this year (Governors Tom Vilsack or Mark Warner or Senator Hillary Clinton).

Nobody is better qualified than John Kerry to remind us that a choice was made last year. That is especially true given his intention to speak out on major issues in depth in the coming weeks, free now from agitprop about gay marriage and lies about his Navy record. Obviously the big one will be Iraq, about which he gets one more chance to point a clear way forward or out or both. Nobody has higher standing than Kerry to say, as he did yesterday, that the Senate should not trust Bush's or John Roberts's evidence-free claims of ''modesty" where the Supreme Court is concerned.

The sad irony is that there are glimmers of what should be in the Gulf Coast outrage. Instead of following the influence-peddling of Bushies and rapacious corporate buddies looking for reconstruction loot, I am intrigued by a small outfit out of Wichita, Corporate Lodging Consultants. In addition to its expertise in booking hotel rooms for clients, it has long worked to help house Red Cross first responders during disasters.

But in the face of an unprecedented need over Labor Day, it rewrote its software and geared up to book evacuees, responding to the Red Cross's inspired idea that hotels could qualify victims quicker than it could. The result, last I checked, was that some 70,000 families have been placed in rooms not just in the region but from Vermont to Hawaii as well, based simply on proof they come from a qualifying zip code.

Instead of Bush-devastated FEMA, there is the one government agency that didn't wait while the waters were rising in New Orleans but simply went out and rescued people. Those Coast Guard helicopters mock Bush's excuses and his advisers' spin.

So what if Kerry took note of ''the steady clucking of administration chickens coming home to roost"? He happens to be correct.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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