For beneath the deplorably poisonous partisanship that has marked this campaign, there are many thoughtful voters, including those committed to one candidate or the other, who have serious reservations about both.
The Salt Lake Tribune shares those reservations. Despite policy and personality differences that clearly separate the two men, there is no easy or obvious choice. Nevertheless, voting, like governing, is about making choices, and that is why The Tribune endorses George W. Bush for a second term as president of the United States.
Tribune readers know that this newspaper has been consistently critical of a number of the president's policies, particularly his war in Iraq, his tax cuts for the rich and his abysmal environmental record.
But this election is about two candidates, not one, and Sen. Kerry, other than not being President Bush, offers too little evidence, in either his policy proposals or his proffered ability to lead, that he would more ably address the challenges facing this country at home and abroad.
If Bush is too disinclined to listen to dissent and study the available facts, Kerry has command of all the details but can't decide where to lead. If Bush is stubbornly overconfident, Kerry is chronically irresolute. Kerry is good at pointing out what Bush has done wrong; he is not so good at firmly setting a clear course for the future.
President Bush has cast himself as a wartime president and is running on his record as the leader who guided the nation forward from grief to resolve after the calamity of Sept. 11, 2001, declaring war on terrorism and protecting the United States from further attacks.
Those accomplishments gain the president a mixed review. After seeming to falter in the hours immediately following the attacks, he found his footing, reassuring Americans that they would recover from a catastrophe for which the nation was, admittedly, unprepared. He rallied the national spirit at Ground Zero and set in motion a successful strategy to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and put al-Qaida to flight.
To that point, one could argue tactics with the president, but his strategy was sound.
It was his blinkered determination to topple Saddam Hussein that led him and the nation disastrously astray. The justifications for war - weapons of mass destruction and collaboration with al-Qaida - have been thoroughly discredited. Worse, the United States was militarily and strategically unprepared to enforce the peace in an occupied nation.
By the odd logic of war, however, Bush may be the leader most able to withdraw from Iraq. After January, if elections can be held, he could declare victory and begin to bring U.S. forces home. He would have to take care, however, not to remove American troops prematurely, which could cause Iraq to collapse into civil war.
Other than arguing that he can somehow woo old allies, whom Bush has alienated unnecessarily, Kerry has no compelling plan to turn the mess in Iraq around, assuming that is possible. His call to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, while it would have been the right course prior to the war, is whistling in the dark now.
On the home front, the president argues correctly that the economic recession was not of his making and that it was compounded by 9-11. However, his tax cuts, those that favored the rich, contributed little to shoring up the economy. They simply exacerbated the growing income disparity in America. To accomplish immediate economic stimulus, his tax reductions should have been aimed only at middle-income taxpayers, a strategy that would have caused far less havoc with the federal budget deficit.
Kerry's proposed rollback of the tax cut to people earning more than $200,000 a year could help to control the deficit, but only if he could also contain spending. He has given little clue how he would perform that balancing act, other than to ask for line-item veto authority, which Congress would be loathe to give him. His proposals to close corporate tax loopholes would raise more revenue but dampen economic growth.
Kerry has said he will not cut Social Security benefits or privatize the program, but his embrace of the status quo leaves the looming problem of baby boomer retirements unaddressed. Bush, by contrast, has a plan to allow Americans to invest part of their contributions in personal accounts, but does not explain where he would get the $2 trillion necessary to accomplish that transition.
With a second term, the president should focus on bringing the federal budget back toward balance, which means that he cannot make his tax cuts permanent. He has promised action on Social Security, but he must flesh out his plan, including costs. And he must take the complex health-care debate beyond the single issue of tort reform.
High on President Bush's to-do list should be removal of ideological extremists, particularly Attorney General John Ashcroft, from his Cabinet, in favor of Republican moderates like Mike Leavitt. Donald Rumsfeld and deputy Paul Wolfowitz should get the boot from the Pentagon because of their failed policies in Iraq.
A final point. Whatever the outcome on Nov. 2, this newspaper is confident our next leader will move the country forward. John Kerry has proven himself in combat and may have the right stuff to be a wartime president. George W. Bush has stumbled at times, but he has looked national calamity in the face and never blinked.
Given the choice and the challenges ahead, The Salt Lake Tribune endorses President Bush for a second term in the White House.