Sunday, September 19, 2004

Questions We'll Wish We'd Asked
Questions We'll Wish We'd Asked

By David S. Broder

Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page B07

Hurricanes are hitting the United States in bunches. Bloody car bombings rock Baghdad. Putin shows signs of acting like Stalin. US Airways goes back into bankruptcy. Dan Rather pleads his case. Medicare premiums soar. Martha Stewart pushes for going to jail. Bush attacks Kerry. Kerry attacks Bush.

And, as if all that weren't enough, the owners of the National Hockey League lock the players out of training camp.

No, I am not being facetious. And I am not turning this into a sports column about a game I have never really followed.

I'm suggesting that this is one of those too-frequent moments of mental overload, when the best thing you can do is put some distance between yourself and the TV screen and not try to absorb it all at once.

You can help keep it in perspective by looking forward and asking which, if any, of the sensations dominating the 24-hour news cycle will be important to you, say, four months from now.

Say it's next January. The hurricane season is over; Florida and the Gulf Coast have largely recovered. US Airways is still flying snowbirds to the South (bankruptcy to airlines meaning little more than another device for cutting workers' pay). Rather has joined Tom Brokaw in semi-retirement. Martha Stewart's five-month jail term is almost over. And the campaign rhetoric already looks absurd: How could we ever have wasted so much time on National Guard "orders" and Navy commendations from decades ago?

What remains of real importance? Foremost is Iraq. Americans will still be fighting and dying there. Whether or not some approximation of an Iraqi election has been held, Americans will still be the only real security force facing an insurgency that condemns us as occupiers.

That is what preoccupies the president the day after his inauguration. And in retrospect we realize that when we were choosing between George Bush and John Kerry, they should have been pressed much harder to explain what they will do now that we are stuck in an expanding guerrilla war in Iraq.

They both had checkered histories on Iraq. Bush had taken the country to war on what turned out to be false premises and appeared oblivious for far too long to the challenges of a lengthy aftermath. Kerry's history was too incoherent for ready explanation -- an on-again, off-again endorsement and criticism of Bush policy that gave almost no clue to his convictions.

We should have insisted that they clarify what they would do now -- not what they wish they had done back then. Iraq and its attendant problems should have been the only subject of the first televised debate. And we should not have let them shift to airy generalizations about being tough on terrorism. Terrorism is a real threat, but the argument about who is "tougher on terrorism" is a mug's game -- and it's not answered by pictures of a guy standing in the pit of what was once the World Trade Center or carrying a rifle in Vietnam.

The second thing that remains important is Vladimir Putin -- and he is a powerful symbol. Because of Iraq, the United States' relationships with other countries around the world have been bent out of shape or suffered from neglect. If it is true, as is manifestly the case, that the United States has a vital interest in nurturing democracy in Russia, both capitalism and democracy in China, and cooperative relations with Europe -- and open trade with all of them -- then those relations need work. We should have asked Bush more about why he thought so many of them had gone sour, and we should have asked both Bush and Kerry how they planned to set them right.

And the jump in Medicare premiums is important -- not only in its immediate impact on seniors' budgets, but as a reminder of our head-in-the-sand attitude toward the oncoming fiscal collision between the health care and retirement costs of the baby boomers, on one side, and our staggering budget deficits on the other.

We let both Kerry and Bush dangle a string of new domestic goodies before our eyes, plus tax cuts for everybody (Bush) or almost everybody (Kerry), and never got a straight answer from either one on how to pay for the boomers' massively expensive retirement years. That would have been a good subject for a second debate.

Then maybe we'd have known what we were doing with our votes.