Remember all that stuff you’ve been reading lately about how this election offers voters a clear choice between the two major candidates? Well, forget it. That theory, apparently, is no longer operational.

In a piece that Ralph Nader supporters are probably already gleefully forwarding, Jim VandeHei, writing in Sunday’s Washington Post, argues that, in fact, President Bush and Senator John Kerry “are often advocating similar solutions to some of the nation’s biggest problems.”

There’s some truth to VandeHei’s notion, particularly on the future of an American presence in Iraq, on national security, and on middle class tax cuts. But he’s far too willing to take campaign spin at face value. Had VandeHei looked beyond the rhetoric and scrutinized each candidate’s policy proposals, he would have found sharper contrasts on some key issues he cites.

First, VandeHei notes that “Bush wants to … slash the deficit in half by 2009 and limit government spending. So does Kerry.” He quotes both candidates offering campaign platitudes about slashing the deficit.

What he fails to note is the huge difference between the candidates on how they would get there (or whether they would get there at all). Bush’s plan to “cut” the deficit in half, for example, is predicated on a number of unrealistic assumptions. According to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which leans left but is generally well-respected by Washington types for its budget insight, Bush’s “plan” omits the costs of a whole host of measures he favors, from fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (which would effectively grant a tax cut to a number of taxpayers beginning next year), to extending a number of popular tax breaks, to funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan after September. Add in all these costs, and CBPP calculates that the deficit would actually worsen by 2009. Kerry, in turn, has yet to explain how he rationalizes his own ambitious spending proposals with a vow to chop the deficit in half — as none other than VandeHei himself co-reported back on March 25.

VandeHei is guilty of the same credulousness on trade. He writes that, “Kerry sells himself as a pro-business, ‘free but fair’ global trader … As does the president.”

That’s great as far as simple slogans go. But there’s strong evidence that suggests Kerry would stress the “fair,” while Bush would put the emphasis on the “free.” In 2002, with the backing of environmentalists, Kerry sponsored a Senate measure designed to protect state and federal environmental laws threatened by current trade rules. A President Kerry would presumably be averse to signing new trade deals that might similarly jeopardize environmental laws. President Bush, by contrast, explicitly sought “fast track” authority, so as to be able to sign new agreements without giving Congress the opportunity to amend them in the ways Kerry advocates.

On both the deficit and trade, all we really learn from VandeHei is that both candidates have identified the most voter-friendly slogans to stick on their policies. (On spending, both candidates know that, since Ross Perot, voters understand that deficits are harmful, so they need to say they’ll “slash the deficit.” On trade, both know that “free but fair” is the best way to show voters you’re concerned about the loss of jobs abroad without allowing yourself to be painted as a protectionist.) But good reporting would probe beyond these surfaces, looking at the range of evidence that offers clues as to how the candidates might actually govern.

Back in 2000, many in the press were persuaded by both campaigns’ centrist rhetoric that the policy differences between George Bush and Al Gore were minor. Four years later, with Bush having governed in a far more conservative fashion than his rhetoric might have suggested (and Gore apparently having moved leftward, endorsing Howard Dean and thundering against the Iraq war) that notion appears less convincing. It would be a shame if history were allowed to repeat itself.

Bryan Keefer and Zachary Roth

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.