A friend of mine in Los Angeles reports listening to a radio station that caters to middle-class African-Americans and hearing repeatedly from hosts and callers that there’s little difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry. “People keep saying they’re both Skull and Bones guys,” she says. “So why bother?”

It’s a pity our political system doesn’t produce a more diverse range of choices. It’s also a pity that some voters don’t discern the Texas-size gap between these two Yalies. And it is troubling that polls show Bush voters to be more committed to their man than Kerry voters are to theirs. Of course, Kerry is largely responsible for this. He’s no dynamo on the stump. But that’s always been the case, and Democrats and anti-Bush voters still waiting for Kerry to seduce, charm or excite them and others–by changing his style or by issuing bold, imagination-capturing policy proposals–should give it a rest. Kerry’s limitations are not going to disappear between now and Election Day. Yet it is important that Democrats and potential Kerry voters perceive him–and talk about him–as more than an Anybody-but-Bush placeholder.

That’s not always easy. Kerry can get lost in nuance, not a trait associated with strong leaders (though the country could use a leader who recognizes, let alone appreciates, nuances). He has voted consistently for abortion rights–earning a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood–but when asked about abortion he ruminated that he might consider appointing an antiabortion judge to a lower bench. His supporters shook their heads. His foes claimed it as evidence of his “flip-flopping” ways. So, a stalwart choice supporter found himself explaining a position that should need no explanation.

On the Iraq war, Kerry voted to grant Bush authority to attack but called on him to try all other options and create a truly multilateral coalition before launching an invasion. He did not support the war, as some detractors on the left charge, but he did enable it. That, too, has required explaining. Nowadays, he gets criticism from progressives for not presenting a bold plan for extricating us from Iraq. But short of supporting an immediate withdrawal of US troops–which many believe could lead to civil war and a troubled state useful for terrorists–what fundamental policy change might Kerry offer at this juncture? The current UN position is that US troops can remain until the end of next year, as long as the interim Iraqi government agrees. Bush has signed off on this schedule. Should Kerry, who has urged doing more to internationalize security forces in Iraq, pledge to yank US troops before then? Even without international replacements? Good policy or not, it’s doubtful such a move would rally millions of undecided voters for Kerry. It also is not unreasonable for him and his supporters to claim as key talking points that (a) Kerry would not have created this mess in the first place and (b) he is better equipped to deal with the problems Bush has spawned. This is not a bold argument, but it has the benefit of plausibility.

Even if the former war hero turned antiwar leader cannot offer an audacious peace plan, Kerry has other assets that should jazz up Democrats and progressives. As GOPers note ceaselessly, the National Journal rated him the most liberal member of the Senate. Shouldn’t libs be overjoyed to have their number-one supporter as the nominee? Kerry has been a steady pal of environmentalists; he calls for an energy-independence initiative that would boost alternative energy. He advocates raising the minimum wage and spending hundreds of billions to expand healthcare coverage. (It’s not universal health insurance, but it’s a stab at the problem.) He fought against Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. He has championed arms control. He led the charge against Reagan’s covert war in Central America and mounted a gutsy investigation exposing connections between the CIA-backed contra rebels and drug runners. With his probe of the crooked BCCI bank–a financial haven for terrorists, shady businessmen and spy services, including the CIA–he took on corruption that extended into his own party. He has endorsed full public financing of elections.

Kerry did support NAFTA, and he has proposed corporate tax cuts to spur investments. He once raised questions about the political costs of affirmative action (while still backing such programs). He’s not a Wellstone Democrat. But compare Kerry with Bill Clinton, who still captivates the Democratic faithful. When Clinton ran for President, he burnished his centrist credentials by pushing welfare “reform” and advocating highly punitive crime legislation. This year, Kerry’s post-primary lurch to the center entails cooling down the populist rhetoric (which he borrowed from his Democratic rivals) and emphasizing his “values.” He has done nothing as crass as when Clinton left the campaign trail in 1992 to return to Arkansas for the execution of a mentally disabled convict. Kerry, a former prosecutor, opposes capital punishment. (For the first time in years, the Democratic platform does not support the death penalty.)

Sure, it would be better for Democrats if their man charged up the voters. But Democratic primary voters anointed a fellow who reassures more than inspires. And although it may be a conviction on the left that if a candidate calls heartily for universal healthcare, massive reinvestment in jobs and expansion of social programs, he will electrify the electorate and stride to victory, this formula is not always rewarded. Look at Dennis Kucinich. Howard Dean, too, was bolder than Kerry, and that alone was not the ticket. In any event, asking Kerry to be bolder is like asking Bush to be smarter. The Democrats would likely crush Bush if Kerry exuded Clintonesque charisma and had people yapping at the water cooler about his great new ideas for creating high-wage jobs, strengthening the country’s social fabric, making the United States safe and ending the war in Iraq. That’s not going to happen. Still, Kerry has more to offer–in qualities and ideas–than many other prominent Democrats. If he doesn’t convey that fully, it is up to others to do so.