As one who regards Gerry Ford as our greatest president (least time served, least damage done, husband of Betty, plus John Paul Stevens as his contribution to the Supreme Court), I'd always imagined the man from Grand Rapids, Mich., would never be surpassed in sheer slowness of thought.

            But I think Bush has Ford beat. Had he ever made a mistake, the reporter asked at that White House press conference. The president's face remained composed, masking the turmoil and terror raging within, as electronic networks went into gridlock. It should have been easy for him. Broad avenues of homely humility beckoned him on. "John, no man can stand before his Creator as I do each day and say he is without error . " Reagan would have hit the ball out of the park. But the president froze. He said he'd have to think it over.

            Behind all liberal hysteria over Bush as a demon of monstrous, Hitlerian proportions, I get the sense of a certain embarrassment, that the man is bringing the imperial office into embarrassment and disrepute. Hence all the plaintive invocations of the distress of "America's allies," hopefully to be cured by a competent rationalizer of the empire's affairs, like John Kerry. But should not all opponents of the American Empire's global reach rejoice that Bush has sown confusion in the alliance? Would not the world be a safer and conceivably a better place if the allies saw separate paths as the sounder option?

            With leadership of barely conceivable arrogance and incompetence (Bremer alone is a case study in the decline in quality of such American leaders in the past 50 years), the United States has managed the amazing feat of uniting Iraqis in detestation of their presence and of leaving itself with zero palatable options. Amid this bloody disaster, with popular distaste for the occupation of Iraq swelling up in the polls, Kerry, with McCain at his elbow, has been goading Bush into sending more troops. As a prospective rationalizer of empire, Kerry sends forth the word that the Democrats are the Second Party of War.

            With hardly a backward glance -- or forward look -- the bulk of the surviving American Left has blithely joined the Democratic Party center, without the will to inflict debate, the influence to inform policy or the leverage to share power. Behind Kerry the Democrats stand committed to military expansion . further degradation of the welfare system, denials of black demands for equity, and unqualified submission to the imperatives of the corporate system.

            In line with these same imperatives of the corporate system, Kerry announced on April 7 that his primary economic policy initiative would be deficit reduction. Welcome back, Robert Rubin, the man who ran Clinton's economic policy on behalf of Wall Street. Kerry's economic advisers, Roger Altman and Gene Sperling, acknowledge they consult with Rubin all the time. If you still foolishly believe that the economy in Clinton-time was properly guided for the long-term benefit of the many, as opposed to short-term bonanzas for the wealthy few, I strongly urge you to read Robert Pollin's "Contours of Descent" (Verso), a pitiless dissection of Clinton and early Bush policies.

            Deficit reduction will do nothing to directly promote the growth of jobs, which is the fundamental problem in the economy now. As Pollin remarked to me this week, "It is also a political disaster for the Democrats to again latch on to deficit reduction rather than jobs as their major economic theme. Even if Rubin were right about deficit reduction stimulating growth of GDP, what is clear in the current 'recovery' is that GDP growth alone does not promote job growth. That is exactly what we mean by the 'jobless recovery.' The Democrats should instead be talking about a major jobs program, through refinancing state and local government spending in education, health and social welfare."

            Kerry's other shoe, war on the deficit as well as war in Iraq, has a more sinister import. Deficits aren't intrinsically bad, and the current one is scarcely unparalleled in recent U.S. economic history. But Bush's deficits, amassed in the cause of tax breaks for the very rich and war abroad, provide the premise of a fiscal crisis to starve social spending. It's the Greenspan Two Step: Endorse the tax cuts, then say, as the Fed chairman did in February, that the consequent deficits require an onslaught on Social Security. Remember, Bill Clinton was all set to start privatizing Social Security, until the allurements of the diviner Monica postponed the onslaught.

            There are progressive ways to close the deficit. For example, Pollin reckons that if we imposed a very small tax on all financial transactions -- i.e. all stock, bond and derivative trades, starting with a 0.5 percent tax on stocks and scaling the other appropriately -- we could raise roughly $100 billion right there, or roughly 20 percent of next year's projected deficit, even if we also assume financial market trading fell by an implausibly large 50 percent as a result of the tax.

            A tax on financial transactions? Now you're talking, but not about anything you might expect from the Democratic Party or John Kerry.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.