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Let Sleeping Pols Lie

By selecting John Edwards as his running mate, John Kerry is desperately trying to inject some fizz into a campaign that has been as flat as week-old Coca-Cola. How well will it work? Ask Bob Dole or Walter Mondale. Like Kerry, they were both boring Washington lifers who won their party’s presidential nomination and then tried to wow the voters with an exciting veep pick. Dole went with Jack “Quarterback” Kemp, Mondale with Geraldine “First Female” Ferraro. So much for that theory.

No matter how much he campaigns with the honey-tongued wonder boy from North Carolina, or how often he replays his “Apocalypse Now” years, or how many skeet he slays, Kerry is not going to alter the public’s basic perception: He’s widely seen as aloof, arrogant, cerebral and a tad shifty. Sort of like Gray Davis without the charm.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He should stop fighting his reputation and start embracing his inner policy analyst. That may be just what voters are looking for this year. As Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently wrote, “History has been too dramatic the past 3 1/2 years,” what with terrorist attacks, two wars, a recession, transatlantic tiffs and all the rest. A lot of this excitement wasn’t George W. Bush’s fault, but people nevertheless associate him with the tumultuous times since 911. Voters may be ready, as Noonan suggests, for a less exciting alternative: a president who makes peace with France, doesn’t polarize the planet, trims the budget deficit and eats his spinach.

Enter John Kerry. Since winning the primaries, the junior senator from Massachusetts has done a superb job of adopting the protective coloration of tapioca pudding. He’s stopped railing against “Benedict Arnold CEOs” (a.k.a. campaign contributors), and he’s no longer claiming that Bush is the worst leader since Caligula.

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In place of those faux populist ravings designed to woo Deaniacs, he’s adopted a centrist agenda so tame that it should pop up when you Google “snoozy.”

I went to the Kerry website and clicked on the icon for “Fighting for American Jobs.” Up came Kerry’s promise to create “millions of high-paying manufacturing jobs in the industries of the future,” which, I gather, will miraculously all be located in Stark County, Ohio, where he campaigned recently.

How will he pull off this improbable feat? By enacting a “jobs tax credit,” enforcing “our trade agreements,” ending “tax breaks for companies creating jobs overseas,” investing “in universal broadband access” and, best of all, “establishing Manufacturing Business Investment Corporations (MANBIC) and doubling the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).” MANBIC and MEP -- man, that’s a pledge to get pulses racing and hearts pounding ... at the Brookings Institution.

Then I clicked over to see what Kerry had to say on foreign policy. The main feature was an article he published in the Washington Post with the thrilling headline “A Realistic Path for Iraq.” That path seemed to consist of getting “help from others” to rebuild the country.

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Kerry had to concede, teeth no doubt gritted, that “in recent months the Bush administration has taken some of the needed steps,” but he insisted that “we need a more far-reaching plan.” Its highlight? “A regional conference with Iraq’s neighbors.”

Now, this isn’t bad advice. It’s even possible that Bush will convene the conference himself; this wouldn’t be the first Kerry promise that he’s carried out as part of his preemption doctrine.

But let’s face it: Michael Moore, George Soros and the gang at Moveon.org haven’t been going through a nervous breakdown lately because they want to convene “a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbors.” They want out of Iraq, like yesterday, and don’t care if that leaves Ayad Allawi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or Bugs al-Bunny in charge. Kerry should get kudos for resisting the siren song of the Looney Tunes left.

The price he pays for being responsible is that he’s not offering much of an alternative to Bush on either domestic or foreign policy. But that’s OK.

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People are going to vote based on what they think of the incumbent, not the challenger. If Iraq stays quiet and the economy stays hot, Bush will be hard to beat. If there’s another crisis, however, he could easily wind up signing autographs at Barnes & Noble sooner than he intended.

Kerry’s job is simply to establish a threshold level of credibility that will make him a plausible alternative if Bush falters. And that’s precisely what he’s been doing.

The pundits may have sneered at his catatonic campaign -- at least they did before Edwards was selected -- but Kerry has been doing the right thing by daring to be dull. The danger now is that Edwards will inject too much excitement into the race.

Max Boot is a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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