John Kerry is borne aloft by party unity and the overriding imperative of defeating Bush, but the senator has entered a perilous zone where the outcome may depend more on the content of his character. During the next few months, Kerry must somehow fend off the smears and caricatures broadcast by Bush’s attack machine and, at the same time, define himself in more convincing terms for the broad audience of voters, many of whom know little or nothing about him. Who is John Kerry? What does he believe about the country? What do people get if they elect him?

So far, the candidate has been nimble and smart about counterpunching, issue by issue. A monthlong blitz of negative TV ads (with almost daily slurs from the Cheneyman) took a modest hit on Kerry’s ratings, but nothing that can’t be overcome. His performance on the second half of the challenge–defining John Kerry–seems weaker, with dismaying echoes of Clinton/Gore. I hope that judgment is premature, but the candidate does not have all summer to craft a compelling self-portrait. It’s forming right now in the public mind and sounds more wonkish than inspiring.

Kerry, for instance, proposed to reform corporate taxation–closing the loophole by which American multinationals avoid US taxes by holding profits offshore–as a way to encourage job creation at home. The increased revenue would be used to finance tax credits for businesses, large and small, for hiring new employees. The money would also be used to reduce the corporate income-tax rate slightly, plus a one-time tax amnesty for offshore tax avoiders. “Some may be surprised to hear a Democrat calling for lower corporate tax rates,” Kerry said in Detroit before addressing a rally of auto workers, hoping to inoculate himself against the Republican stereotype of an ardent liberal raising taxes.

The loophole reform is itself a worthy idea–more ambitious than anything Bill Clinton ever attempted–but the cuteness of the overall package reminds one of Clinton’s habit of always trying to have it both ways. Do something symbolic for the folks worried about globalization–but not so much that it will upset the corporations. Beyond an expression of sympathy, the tax package does little or nothing to reverse the deindustrialization ravaging manufacturing and some service sectors. Reducing tax avoidance might have some slight impact many years from now, but even that’s a stretch. The artfulness–and political emptiness–recalls Al Gore’s “lockbox.”

Kerry, in fact, has assembled the old crowd from the Clinton White House to cook up such ideas. His economic team is led by investment banker Roger Altman, Clinton’s Deputy Treasury Secretary, and the ubiquitous Gene Sperling, the Clinton economic adviser who shared his views with many of the Democratic contenders (even Howard Dean). Since White House days, Sperling has associated himself with Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress and, yes, the Democratic Leadership Council. “A Kerry Team, A Clinton Touch,” said the headline on a Sunday feature in the New York Times.

So far, the team appears to be following the same playbook–center-right and investor-friendly–that turned Al Gore into a formless pudding during the 2000 campaign. “This group is consulting literally daily with Bob Rubin,” Altman gushed. Former Treasury Secretary Rubin gave us NAFTA and other free-trade milestones that led to the jobs hemorrhage.

The Kerry team, according to the Times, includes four other investment bankers. That’s no doubt comforting to Wall Street donors, not so comforting to less-powerful constituencies. Sperling has already proclaimed in various articles “a new consensus on free trade” (this will be news to Kerry’s labor supporters). In an “open memo” to the Democratic nominee on “How to Be a Free Trade Democrat” (published in Foreign Policy before Kerry locked up the nomination), Sperling sounded a lot like the DLC or even the Business Roundtable. “You must counter any notion that most of the job loss and economic dislocation in the United States flows directly from recent trade policies,” he warned. In addition to defending the status quo, Sperling proposed old policy palliatives (some more than twenty years old) for assisting workers and communities after they are whacked by closed factories and lost jobs. “You are never going to make dislocation pleasant, but you can and must make it less traumatic,” Sperling advised. Imagine the throngs of unemployed machinists and software engineers turning out the Kerry vote to win “less traumatic” dislocations.

Kerry, of course, is not responsible for what his advisers think, but he’d better get a second opinion before he signs off on Sperling’s “new consensus” or Rubin’s bond-market economics. It may be too late–Kerry’s second “jobs first” speech was a Clintonesque reprise on why “fiscal discipline” must come first. This is not 1992. Their ideas do not speak to this political moment. If Kerry is to defeat Bush, it must be done in the industrial Midwest, where job losses are most severe. Kerry wins by carrying Ohio and Missouri, plus a few Western states Bush won in 2000. For this, he needs not more sophisticated waffling but gut-level intensity.

Kerry doesn’t need a comprehensive reform plan. His sincerity will be conveyed by saying something like this: “A lot of people are asking how America can sustain its middle class if we keep losing so many good jobs overseas. That’s a good question, and I intend to find the right answers. There will be no more free-trade agreements until I succeed.”

This is the test of character he faces: Which John Kerry is running for President? The cautious and conventional senator who has always championed free trade, or the comeback politician who plays to win and will do whatever it takes? The choice cannot be left to policy advisers.