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What's the 'Big Idea'?

In his nomination acceptance speech last month, John Kerry implored both Republicans and Democrats to make this election "a contest of big ideas, not small-minded attacks."

Americans have seen plenty of such attacks from both sides, but where are the big ideas? Where is today's equivalent of Social Security (Roosevelt); the interstate highway system (Eisenhower); sending humans to the moon (Kennedy); the Civil Rights Act (Johnson); or environmental protection (Nixon)?

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The Democrats have spent so much effort emphasizing their candidate's biography and credentials to be a war president that big ideas have gotten short shrift. Closing corporate tax loopholes to stop job outsourcing hardly qualifies as monumental. Even allowing the uninsured access to the same health coverage that federal workers enjoy - while impressive for its scope - deals with only half the problem because it doesn't really address spiraling health costs.

President Bush, meanwhile, plans to play up his vision of an "ownership society" at next week's GOP convention. But that catch-all phrase looks to be an amalgam of smaller ideas, such as partial privatization of Social Security, tax-free health savings accounts, and incentives for home ownership and small businesses.

Perhaps the two candidates have taken a lesson from President Clinton's difficulty in pursuing a big idea. His proposed changes for healthcare were of such magnitude that reform collapsed under its own weight. With peace and prosperity, meanwhile, the nation wasn't in the mood for major change, especially one with big uncertainties about the proposal's impact.

And Bill Clinton's new-message-every-day style didn't lend itself to a few big issues (nor did the incendiary political atmosphere and opposition Congress).

George Bush, on the other hand, considers himself a big ideas kind of guy. He came into office with a short, substantial agenda, but got only two of his items (sweeping tax cuts and education reform) done before 9/11 shifted him to a war footing.

One could argue that the Iraq war was one of his big ideas, but its underlying motive - to democratize and thus deterrorize the Middle East - was downplayed in favor of the idea of a preemptive strike against alleged WMDs and terrorist threats. The democracy domino theory was never fully marketed to the American public, and the verdict is still out on whether it will work in the Middle East or even in Iraq. Now the president is hardly trying to persuade Americans to support other, long-term ventures to rid the region of autocracies.

If Americans were in no mood for bold ideas in a time of peace and prosperity, it's hard to imagine them being very enthusiastic during a period of war and large deficits. Big ideas of the social variety would probably require tax hikes or expanded government, and it's not clear the public supports such moves. The candidates would do better to lay out how they would bring the current big idea of Iraq to a peaceful conclusion.

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That said, here's one big idea - not original, sorry - that has a decent chance of taking hold: shifting away from fossil fuels. With oil prices surging, and Americans more sensitive than ever to reliance on Middle East reserves, this could be the time for bolder attempts on energy.

Still, the war and job growth are hefty enough issues in themselves, and deserve the candidates' full attention. Those twin themes - and an uninterested public - may prevent any other big ideas from surfacing.