The biggest worry, however, is that relatively insignificant controversies from the candidates’ youth will drown out discussion of the momentous issues that will confront the commander in chief in the coming four years. Mr. Bush’s precise whereabouts in 1973, and whether Mr. Kerry threw away his medals or his ribbons — these seem to us to matter somewhat less than how the two men might differ in policy toward Iraq or North Korea.
That’s why the Kerry campaign’s response to Mr. Cheney’s speech this week was so inadequate. In his address in Fulton, Mo., Mr. Cheney was unsparing in his criticism of Mr. Kerry, but his line of attack had nothing to do with Vietnam. Rather, Mr. Cheney questioned Mr. Kerry’s record on defense and foreign policy, asserting that he “has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security.” Some of his points were unfair; for instance, Mr. Kerry’s proposed cuts in the intelligence budget a decade ago aren’t evidence, as Mr. Cheney would have it, of a “deeply irresponsible” attitude toward funding the war on terrorism. But the vice president’s recitation of what he termed Mr. Kerry’s “inconsistencies and changing rationales” on Iraq, from the Persian Gulf War to the present, gets to the heart of what this campaign needs to be about: America’s place in the world, the right and wrong times to use force and similar weighty questions. Recalling Mr. Cheney’s multiple draft deferments isn’t a rebuttal; both campaigns need to engage on the merits.