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LONDON — When the legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel left the dugout for the pitcher’s mound, there was only one question. Would he stick with his pitcher or signal to the bullpen for a reliever? Sometimes there was a brief discussion and Casey would walk back to the dugout. Often, however, his right hand went up and relief was soon on the way. The only remaining question was whether he would go with a left-hander or a right-hander? That depended on the opposing lineup.

Sports often serves as a metaphor for politics in America, and at times like these it’s easy to understand why. While there’s no manager or “philosopher king” to decide whether relief is needed in the White House — since Americans don’t live in Plato’s Republic — the people will have to make the choice themselves.

Right now, the American people are taking a hard look at their commander in chief, who, coincidentally, once owned a baseball team himself in Houston, and they don’t particularly like what they see. Not that President George W. Bush isn’t a chummy sort, but they are concerned about his judgment and that of the team he has assembled. Are they up to the job? Did Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld know what was going on in his own department?

I don’t mean in terms of their resumes; I mean in terms of applying real-world intelligence — not neoconservative political ideology — to real world problems in the name of the United States. With Iraq drifting daily toward disaster from widespread insurgency to widespread criminality, it is hard to refute the charge that the administration has won the war but lost the peace.

While Bush must bear primary responsibility, in fact, his teammates have also let him down. Through a combination of arrogance, ignorance and insolence, they have besmirched the good name of the U.S., demeaned the rule of law and broken international law.

I remember not long ago when a reporter asked Bush if an action he had authorized conformed to international law. The question was met with a bewildered stare: “I’ll ask my lawyer” was the cryptic response!

That may help explain why some further down the chain of command wantonly disregard notions of conforming to international law. Such crass indifference or ignorance goes far to explain why little distinction was made between enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan and prisoners of war captured in Iraq — a difference that is coming back to haunt them and plays into the hands of al-Qaeda.

This is not the position that an incumbent president running for re-election wants to be in six months before a national election. The economy may be humming, but Iraq has thrown Bush’s election plans off course.

When America’s military morphs from liberators to occupiers to torturers, the administration’s political support begins to melt away as the electorate distances itself from acts that are at odds with American beliefs and values.

All this plays to the advantage of Democratic challenger, John Kerry, even as it drowns out a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign designed to introduce Kerry to American voters and give them a reason to look him over — particularly in battleground states.

This is the big chance that Kerry has been eagerly waiting for: to define himself and not be defined by the other guy. Indeed, by virtue of having forfeited the moral high ground, Bush is in no position to do the defining anymore now that his opponent has emerged as a credible alternative. Still, the American voter needs a convincing reason to vote for the challenger and dump the incumbent.

Kerry will now be judged by a higher, presidential standard; both the message and the messenger must measure up. In the end, it is up to the American voter to decide whether Kerry should come in in relief and give the hometown fans the performance they crave and deserve.

The 2004 election is turning into a referendum on the war in Iraq, much like the presidential election of 1968 turned into a referendum on the war in Vietnam. Then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey tried to play out of loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson and lost. The message for Kerry: It’s not an issue that can be straddled, so don’t try!

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