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Kerry's 'Anybody But Bush' trap

I RECENTLY received a screaming piece of fund-raising mail paid for by John Kerry for President. It was on the letterhead of Democratic political consultant James Carville.

The first page read in part:

''If there are limits to how far the Bush political machine is willing to go to savage an opponent, you could strain your eyes trying to find them.

''In 2000 they were willing to challenge John McCain's fitness for office and his commitment to veterans _ even though he spent years as a prisoner in Vietnam.

''In 2002 they had no compunction about challenging the patriotism of Senator Max Cleland and showing his photo next to those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden _ even though he lost three limbs while serving his country in Vietnam ...

''We're up against a bunch that has $150 million in the bank and no shame when it comes to using it to distort the truth. Why are Bush and the Republicans so desperate to mislead people about John Kerry's record and impugn his reputation?

''Because they know that, in a fair Kerry versus Bush contest, we win - and they lose.''

What was striking about the letter was that the entire first page was about how Bush misleads, but not a single sentence about how Kerry would lead. Even as Bush flounders in self-righteousness, you have to wonder if the ABB (Anybody But Bush) crowd is lulling themselves into a reverse trap. Letters like this make you wonder if ABB also means All But Blind.

The reality is there is a core on folks on the right who believe Bush is an appointed guardian of unilateral American might. There is a core of people on the left who believe Bush is still not their president. But if it was so obvious to Americans outside the elite east and the Bay Area that Bush was a scoundrel, then the polls should not be merely even - Kerry should be ahead by a landslide.

Further evidence of how the Kerry folks are relying heavily on the ABB game was the campaign's recent ''release'' of something called the ''Middle-Class Misery Index.'' By the time you get done reading it, you'd think we're in the second Great Depression.

The ''index'' smacked of the very elitism that sunk Al Gore against Bush in 2000. Even though it is a political statement, the Kerry people propped it up by using terms usually reserved for sober university studies such as ''Key Findings,'' and by calling itself a ''report'' and an ''analysis.''

Citing drops in family income, tax cuts, and the rising prices of health care, college tuition, and gasoline, Kerry says Bush has the ''Worst Record of Any President Ever.'' As Democrats are fond of saying, no president has watched so many jobs disappear (2.6 million) since Herbert Hoover. ''Today we are 7 million jobs short,'' the press release said.

The index had lots of numbers for what Bush has done wrong on jobs. But when the release says, ''John Kerry has a comprehensive agenda to restart job growth there were no projections of how many jobs his plans would create.

Kerry complained that on Bush's watch, public university tuition, because of the fiscal crisis of the states, went up on average 13 percent. Kerry promises $50 billion of tax cuts for college. But there was nothing in this press release about how he would convince the colleges from raising the tuitions.

The ''Middle-Class Misery Index'' says, ''George Bush does not even understand the middle-class squeeze let alone have a strategy to deal with it.'' Carville's fund-raising letter says, ''I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait for those Kerry versus Bush debates. I want to see the day when John Kerry goes toe-to-toe with Bush and holds him to account for what he's done and what he's failed to do.''

This is a nice beach read for the ABB crowd. But as someone who thinks Bush has indeed been a pretty bad president, but who also travels a lot around the country and encounters many soccer moms and NASCAR dads who remain far more charitable to Bush than the Democrats care to admit, I think Kerry has to do a lot more to make voters understand how he will turn misery into miracles of jobs, education, and world peace.

It is clear Bush has no shame and should be held to account for what he's done and failed to do. But Carville's raging letter and the ''Middle-Class Misery Index'' still leave Kerry himself an enigma. The ABB crowd circled around him as the anti-Bush. No amount of circling the wagons will protect Kerry in the fall if the lead message of his campaign is merely that Bush is a misleader. He can win only if the lead message is how he himself will lead.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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