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A Real Choice

John Kerry and George W. Bush offer voters two very distinct economic futures for America.

11:00 PM, Mar 8, 2004 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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ALL OF THOSE DISENCHANTED FOLKS who have been staying away from the voting booths because they say that all politicians are the same, so why bother voting, no longer can claim that excuse. GWB and JFK (get used to it, that now refers to John Fitzgerald Kennedy's initialsake) may both be millionaire Yalies, but that's where the similarities end. Kerry remains comfortable in the liberal, upper-crust New England background in which he was reared when not in an overseas boarding school, while Bush long ago decided that the hard-scrabble life of Crawford, Texas is more agreeable--suitably softened by family money and connections, of course.

From which flows a series of policy differences that promise to make America a very different place if Kerry succeeds Bush, then it will be if the president remains in the White House. This is no race between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

BUSH STYLES HIMSELF a war president, with all the implications that has for both foreign and domestic policy. He is willing to spend blood and treasure on a long-term war on terror that he says must be fought if America is to be secure, and on an effort to build Iraq into a model democracy that will be a beacon for other Middle Eastern nations. In domestic terms, that means spending more on defense and curtailing outlays on domestic programs, if necessary.

Kerry sees things differently. During his 19 years in the senate, he has voted against funding every new weapons system proposed by the military, including many now in use in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, after having first voted to approve military action against Saddam Hussein, he shortly thereafter voted against the $82 billion his congressional colleagues approved to fund the military and nation-building effort in Iraq.

Like many of his liberal Democratic colleagues, Kerry would allocate more to entitlement programs and less to the military. And within those entitlement programs, his preference is for government rather than private sector management. So he would modify Bush's recently passed prescription drug program for seniors to make government purchasing more central to efforts to control drug prices. That's bad news for drug companies, and, in the longer run, for those who might benefit from current research and development programs.

On the fiscal front, whoever takes the oath of office on January 20, 2005 will inherit a major problem: a runaway federal deficit. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath in 1933, he faced a crisis and the nation knew he faced a crisis--an awareness that gave him considerable freedom to make such changes as he thought necessary. Bush or Kerry will face a different situation--a generally contented electorate.

It is highly likely that on January 21 the nation will be in the midst of a period of fairly-to-very rapid growth. All signs point to a continuation of the boom in home construction, a pretty good year for the auto industry, good times for manufacturers, a recovering jobs market (a forecast that I confess is increasingly a triumph of hope over experience), and inflation at unthreatening levels. Interest rates may be a bit higher, but are unlikely to have risen to levels that cause consumers undue pain while servicing their debt. Even the trade deficit might well have turned down, as the weaker dollar makes imports more expensive and exports more competitive.

All of which makes it more likely that Bush will continue to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue than that Mrs. Kerry will be engaged in the delicious task of eliminating all traces of Texas from the White House. That is, unless a series of disasters in Iraq--or an extraordinarily large turnout by aroused, anti-Bush Democrats--tips the closely balanced scales in Kerry's favor.

No matter: Either man will face a budget deficit running at close to, or perhaps more than, 5 percent of GDP, and a plan to reduce it, submitted by Bush earlier this year, that is so unrealistic as to have few defenders, even in his own party. Worse still, the next president will preside over the first wave of retirement of the baby boomers, who will want their social security pensions. Not to mention an aging population that, along with expensive new discoveries in the medical sciences, is certain to drive up health care costs.