NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON, John Kerry has found his voice.

Since the earliest days of the Bush presidency, when Bush was airily dismissing the Kyoto Accords and the International Criminal Court, Kerry exuded a clear disdain for Bush’s truculent provincialism. That disdain grew even stronger during the run-up to the Iraqi War, notwithstanding Kerry’s vote to authorize the president to wage that war. It grew stronger yet as Bush waged that war in the worst possible way.

And yet, until Monday, Kerry seemed unable to put together his criticisms of Bush and his war in a compelling way. He seemed stymied by the sheer extent of the chaos in Iraq, which left no attractive or plausible alternative policies for Kerry to support. He tripped himself up by his own spontaneous misstatements, chief among them his August 9 comments at the Grand Canyon that he’d still have voted to authorize the war had he known that there were no WMDs inside Iraq. (As Franklin Roosevelt prepared to run for re-election in 1936, one of his advisers brought up a Pittsburgh campaign speech Roosevelt had given in 1932, in which he pledged to balance the budget. Presiding over a greatly increased deficit, Roosevelt asked the adviser what he should now say about that balanced-budget pledge. “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh,” the adviser answered. Kerry should deny he was ever at the Grand Canyon.)

This Monday, though, Kerry finally found his theme. Your credibility gap on Iraq, he effectively told the president, is a helluva lot bigger than mine. He contrasted the rosy picture of Iraq that Bush paints with the actual slaughterhouse that Iraq has become. He specified all of Bush’s errors in judgment that shaped the disaster that is the occupation, noting that Bush had kept on the officials who’d made the blunders and fired those who’d accurately predicted the consequences: Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, who’d said we needed several hundred thousand troops to provide post-Saddam security, and economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay, who’d allowed in an unguarded moment that the war would cost $200 billion. Both right, both gone.

Kerry’s proposed alternative approaches — internationalizing the occupying force, allowing investors from non-coalition nations to buy a share of Iraqi resources in return for their participation — fall short of the breathtaking; there are no breathtaking alternatives left in Iraq. But he clearly stated he wanted to reduce our force within six months of taking office, and he wanted us out by the end of his first term, which is six months and one term more specific than anything Bush has put forth.


IF KERRY FINALLY HAS FOUND his own Archimedean point on Iraq, where he can stand and try to move the world (or at least the election), he may also be zeroing in on the most compelling domestic and economic argument against four more years of Bush. The most effective contrast he can draw on the home front is on health care.

The reasons are obvious. First, virtually every American has experienced the effects of the skyrocketing costs of health care since Bush became president. Premiums have increased by 59 percent during that time; co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses have also soared. As the costs for insuring a family of four have risen to roughly $10,000 a year, big businesses have transferred a greater share of the cost to their employees, and a growing number of small businesses have stopped offering health coverage at all. The number of medically uninsured Americans has risen by 5.2 million, to 45 million, on Bush’s watch, and that increase shows no sign of slowing.

Moreover, by insisting on two provisions in his so-called Medicare Reform Act, Bush has contributed significantly to the rise in costs. The act bars the government from negotiating the price of drugs with the big pharmaceutical companies. It also forbids Americans from buying medications — almost all American-made — in Canada, where drugs are cheaper because Canadian law explicitly mandates that provincial governments negotiate prices with the drug companies.

In short, Bush favored Big Pharma over the American electorate, an issue that Kerry must hammer on in the upcoming debates.

Kerry’s own plan would allow the government to negotiate with drug companies on price, and consumers to get their drugs from Canada. It would also have the government assume the costs of catastrophic illnesses when a patient’s claims rise over $50,000, provided the employer offers his workers a decent preventive-medicine program. That would reduce insurance costs considerably — roughly $1,000 a year in employee premiums, the Kerry campaign estimates. Finally, Kerry proposes to expand Medicaid and other programs, reducing the number of uninsured, according to various nonpartisan experts, by 29 million.

Campaigning in Minnesota on September 15, Bush accused Kerry of offering a plan that would put “government in control of health care.” In fact, Kerry’s plan sets up no new government programs whatever. Kerry first laid out his plan in a speech in Des Moines on May 16, 2003. It took 16 months for Bush and the Republicans to attack Kerry’s plan as a government takeover, during which time it didn’t occur to health-policy mavens of any political persuasion to describe Kerry’s plan as a big new government program.

If Bush wants to discuss a distortion of Kerry’s health plan, that’s in part because his own plan collapses under scrutiny. His sole proposal for cost savings is to limit the size of medical malpractice awards, which studies show is a minor factor in health-care inflation. Long-term, Bush wants to shift the burden of insurance from employees to individuals — providing Health Savings Accounts in which workers can set aside funds to purchase insurance packages. Of course, if you’re sick, old or earning a median American income (in the low $40,000s for a family of four), you won’t be able to afford a decent policy. That’s what Bush calls the “Ownership Society.”

George Bush’s America, George Bush’s Iraq: If John Kerry can keep his newfound voice and go after the sheer wretchedness of what Bush has done and what he proposes to do, this election is a long way from over.

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