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Democrats are so obsessed with telling people who they aren't, that few voters know who they are.

For two decades, Democrats have spent much of their time running away from ghosts. No, the Democrats would say, we're not tax-and-spend liberals, we're not weak on defense, we're not soft on crime, we're not feckless on family values.

Let's face it: the Democrats had real image problems -- witness their three presidential losses in the 1980s. Without strategic corrections and a little blurring of the past, they never would have won the White House in 1992 or 1996. But the costs of fuzziness have become plain in the face of a Bush White House determined to push one tax cut after another. As the poet suggested, passionate intensity defeats the lack of all conviction almost every time.

A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll captured the Democrats' problem: While 53 percent of Americans said that Republicans had a clear vision of where to lead the country, only 40 percent said that of Democrats. The standard response at this point is a call on Democrats to move sharply leftward and offer voters "a choice, not an echo."

That was Republican Barry Goldwater's battle cry in 1964. You may recall that Goldwater moved his party to the right, captured all of six states and lost in a landslide. The Democrats' problem is not about ideological positioning -- an insider game, anyway -- but about conviction. It's about picking the right fights, and drawing the right lines.

That's what made Sen. John Kerry's recent speech about service and citizenship so interesting. Of course, no one can be against national service or patriotism. President Bush speaks often about these subjects and has appointed some good people to lead his service effort.

But Kerry gave the service idea a new twist. Drawing from fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain's rhetoric -- Americans, Kerry said, "think elected officials no longer ask them to serve a cause larger than themselves" -- the Democratic presidential candidate cast patriotism and community-mindedness as the opposites of "get-mine and get-out rhetoric" and of "a creed of greed."

Linking patriotism with an ethic of public responsibility allowed Kerry to launch a critique of the administration's tax policies. It also opened the way for assaults on Enron, polluters and corporate lobbyists.

Kerry backed up his patriotic populism with serious service initiatives. His Service for College plan would give young people who gave two years of service four-year scholarships, set at the tuition rate of the public universities in the volunteer's state. He'd make a service commitment and serious civics instruction requirements for high school graduation. He proposes Summers of Service for high school students, and an Older Americans in Service program that would allow seniors to earn tuition credits for their grandchildren, or for any child they choose to help.

Kerry's speech underscores that the core divide in American politics now is not between liberals and conservatives, or between capitalists and socialists. It is between libertarians and communitarians.

Libertarians believe that tax cuts are always better than government programs, that private striving and self-improvement are the central acts of American citizenship, and that where the government and the market are concerned, the government should almost always get out of the way.

Communitarians also see the market as useful, and private striving as essential. But they insist that preserving the individual freedom that makes both possible is a cooperative endeavor. Self-rule in a democracy demands not just private creativity, but public commitment. Government needs to assert itself when private markets fail, and when markets fail to serve the common good.

Bush is not a pure libertarian, as critics of his Justice Department would note. But his tax policies are aimed at so depleting the federal Treasury that the government's capacity to act will be constrained for a generation. If the boldness of Bush's vision does not call forth a comparable boldness from those with communitarian commitments, Bush will win by default. Kerry's call to service is a useful start in redefining the terms of the battle ahead.

Washington Post Writers Group

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