The case against re-electing George W. Bush is very strong. But the case for electing Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is not as clear-cut as we would have liked. That leaves voters with a tough choice this year.

In bringing the nation to war against Iraq but not being prepared to win the peace, in cutting taxes even as expenses mushroomed, in violating basic tenets of civil liberties and international norms, in choosing to pursue a right-wing social agenda, Bush has made us less secure in the war on terrorism, created budget deficits that will burden our children and grandchildren, and violated his pledge to be a uniter, not a divider.

This president has been unwilling to admit to any of his mistakes or to hold any of his subordinates accountable for their mistakes. That is deeply disappointing.

Give Bush full credit for leading the nation after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, and for being an unusually strong-willed president. But he has too often substituted righteous certitude for factual analysis. Ideology has too often come before reality. And for all his claims to be a gutsy leader, Bush has been unwilling to ask the nation as a whole for even the smallest sacrifice, even during a time of war. Four more years of this kind of leadership is unappealing.

Is Kerry fit for duty?

Kerry is a flawed candidate. The Democrat has run an uneven campaign and has struck us too often as taking the politically expedient path. He has frequently had trouble connecting personally with voters. He has waffled and obfuscated his position on the war in Iraq.

Some of it is Kerry's proclivity for complexity, not necessarily a bad thing. But part of it, too, is his proclivity to have it both ways on issues. That is a bad trait. In fact, it has cost him dearly in this campaign. If he loses, it will be because voters, even those disillusioned with Bush, do not believe he is a strong, resolute leader. The major question about Kerry is whether he will be assertive in the face of grave challenges or whether he will allow himself to be bogged down in nuance, paralyzed by analysis and fear of political controversy.

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But Kerry is a serious man with strong analytical skills. From his days at Yale, to his service in Vietnam and his subsequent protest of the war there, to his work as an assistant district attorney to his tenure as a United States senator, he has been earnest and diligent, always doing his homework, always being prepared. When the chips were down, whether it was when he was under attack in Vietnam or when he had to vote to raise taxes to close the budget deficit, Kerry has demonstrated streaks of decisiveness and has been willing to take unpopular stands. And he has a deep understanding of national security affairs and a determination to help this country rebuild its alliances in the world. That is critical for the war on terrorism.

Do we agree with all the positions Kerry has taken? No. He has grandstanded on trade issues despite a strong record on free trade through the years. He has committed to not changing any part of Social Security, when most experts will tell you a slight change in how it is funded or in its benefits could add years to its solvency. And if you add up all his proposals, they will break the bank.

A huge job for Bush

Bush's record in the past four years is troubling.

The deteriorating situation in Iraq is Bush's responsibility. According to members of his own Republican party, the lack of postwar planning can only be called incompetent, and the willful blindness exhibited by the president and his top officials in the months leading up to the war borders on malfeasance. The result is that the United States faces an incredibly difficult task just trying to stabilize Iraq and prevent it from becoming another broken state and terrorist base. Washington also finds itself alienated from some of its most reliable and important allies and vilified through much of the world for what is considered its unilateral, arrogant foreign policy.

Can't do it all

Bush's conviction that he can wage war in Iraq and still cut taxes across the board defies all the laws of modern economics. Indeed, his mismanagement of the nation's finances exhibits the same willful blindness to economic realities that his unilateral pursuit of war in Iraq did on the foreign front. He refuses to recognize that his plan to cut taxes well into the future only compounds the day of reckoning when the baby-boom generation begins to retire and the bills for boomers' retirement and medical care come due. Bush has turned economic logic on its head, cutting revenues and increasing expenses, the largest increase in government spending in a quarter of a century. Leaving the bills to our children and grandchildren is not only economically wrong, it is morally wrong.

Wasted chances to unite

But even more than his specific policy failures, Bush's failure to bring this bitterly divided nation together may be his greatest fault.

He had two golden opportunities to heal the deep differences that divide the nation. The first was when former Vice President Al Gore delivered his magnanimous concession speech after the bitter 2000 post-election battle. Bush could have seized that moment to define a new center of American politics, to fulfill his promise to be a compassionate conservative. Rather, he chose to scrap arms control treaties, appoint the most conservative-leaning judges possible, follow the Christian right social policy agenda, slash regulation of business and the environment, and cut taxes across the board, especially for the wealthy.

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He had another opportunity to bring the nation together after the terrible events of 9/11. But just a few months later, the president made the decision to invade Iraq.

A war of choice

We believed there was a strong case to be made for removing Saddam Hussein. But we were dismayed that Bush chose to use deceptive claims and questionable intelligence to make his case. And then he relied on the best-case scenario for the postwar period. This was a blunder of historic proportions. The impression now, from many accounts, is that the administration had made the decision to go to war by the summer of 2002 and that all the diplomatic maneuvering that followed was nothing but an exercise to provide political cover.

The American people will support committing their young to war if it is recognized as a last resort. The more we learn of how the Bush administration manipulated the nation, the more there is a sense that this was a war of choice. The result is that the nation is as divided now as any time in its recent history. It didn't have to be this way. It shouldn't be this way.

The wholesale violation of civil liberties should also disturb all citizens. Yes, in a time of peril there is an absolute need to protect ourselves. But getting the balance right between security and civil liberties is critical. Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, has gone way too far toward the security side. For instance, the Bush administration claimed the right to indefinitely imprison any American citizen it labeled an enemy combatant - even one taken into custody in the United States - without bringing any criminal charges or allowing access to counsel or any court. That flies in the face of 200 years of checks and balances in this nation. The doctrine was rejected by the Supreme Court.

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The president also condoned the Pentagon's decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of prisoners taken to Guantanamo Bay, flouting this nation's long-term adherence to international norms of behavior. If the United States doesn't uphold those norms, who will? The abuses at Abu Ghraib prison stem, at least in part, from those decisions.

The question of responsibility

Given the nature of our campaigns today - the sound bites, negative advertising, easy demagoguery of issues and all the rest of it - voting for one candidate or the other requires a leap of faith. We know they won't keep all their promises and they can't solve all the ills that they have described or, for that matter, start all the programs they propose without bankrupting the country. The question is who will act more responsibly when the tough decisions have to be made? Who will put the long-term interests of the nation above his immediate political benefit? Who will act to forge coalitions and be willing to compromise to help bring this very divided nation together at a time of peril?

In our opinion the answers to those questions, on balance, favor Kerry.

While little noted, Kerry has pledged to pull back or cancel programs that would make it impossible for him to cut the budget deficit in half during his first term. He has also associated himself closely with Robert Rubin, the secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, who has a reputation for fiscal sobriety. Rubin would probably serve in a Kerry cabinet or become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.

A fresh start

Bush's presidency has been too radical and too often wrong. Kerry will have a fresh chance to bring the country together, to help heal the wounds of the past 12 years when partisan bickering has reached historic highs.

Kerry will face the same tough choices that Bush will in trying to stabilize Iraq. Indeed, for all their arguments over what went wrong in Iraq, both Bush and Kerry have fairly similar prescriptions for what has to be done now to shore up the interim government and gain control of the security situation. Kerry says he can do a better job of bringing the allies back to the table and into Iraq. Maybe. It certainly is worth a try. He will have more goodwill from the allies than Bush.

Kerry will also bring to government a group of advisers much more committed to nation building than the Bush administration has been. After all the blunders of the Bush administration, a fresh start, with a different team, is worth a try there.

Repairing the damage

Kerry is not an ideologue, and his desire for success makes him more likely to compromise and find common ground with his opposition. He is the one candidate who can begin to heal the deeply bitter divisions in the nation. Bush cannot and will not do that. By his own words, he is what he is.

Newsday endorses John F. Kerry for president of the United States.