WASHINGTON – As John Kerry (search) and Ralph Nader (search) compete for votes in their common cause of beating President Bush, they risk coming across not just as agents of change, but as Glum and Glummer.
The America that Kerry sees is weighted by millions of job losses, millions of people without health insurance, a "wage recession" for those who do have work, schools begging for money, exploding gas prices and "poisoned" alliances worldwide.
Then there's the America that Nader sees. It's in really bad shape.
He talks about foul air, impure food, 13 million hungry children, corporate domination, "mindless" SAT scores "controlling our definition of intelligence," kids who need love being put on antidepressants instead, corrupt political parties, a government that hasn't had a good idea in 30 years, and a president who acts like an "out-of-control, West Texas sheriff."
If this is morning in America, Americans may want to crawl back into bed.
Opponents of an incumbent president need to tell people what's wrong, so they don't just re-elect him, but must do so in a way that does not sink their spirits, say students of political rhetoric. And Kerry's indictment of Bush fills many of his speeches on the stump.
But one of the Democrat's latest ads is a warm and fuzzy counterbalance, a family heavy portrait in which a soothing Kerry assures Americans: "We're a country of optimists, we're the can-do people and we just need to believe in ourselves again."
To Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (search), that's a sign the campaign recognizes the danger of slipping into a prosecutorial mode that will just bum people out.
"You have to be optimistic and hopeful," she says, "without being happy with the way things are going."
Ronald Reagan personified the upbeat, his vision of morning in America attractive even to many with a hard life. Bill Clinton, the "man from Hope," couched his criticisms of the first President Bush's economic record with an infectious, can-do-better energy.
"The message that gets out to the public in digested form can't be, 'everything's wrong,'" Jamieson said. "It has to be, 'I'm optimistic about what change I can produce.'"
But there's a risk, too, in being too buoyant in a time of dispiriting developments in Iraq and on other fronts. Historians recall that Hubert Humphrey's cheery reputation -- he was known as the "happy warrior" - did not fit the dark times of 1968 when he ran for president.
"There's a difference between prudent optimism and ostrich optimism," said Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York. He credits Bush with confidence in his own abilities, "not an optimism that buries its head."
Kerry has a quick smile when he uses it, and a quick wit anytime, but also sad eyes and a lantern jaw that underline the gravity of the situation on count after count against Bush. Even so, he unfailingly presents himself as a solution to the problem.
Nader, with less to lose and more freedom to speak his famously cantankerous mind, attacks everything under the cancer-causing sun.
Asked Thursday whether he thought conditions are worse in the country than when he ran in 2000, the independent presidential candidate said: "It's almost like time has stood still. Just add 9-11 and Iraq - it's a society caught in a traffic jam."
He talked of the wreckage in a recent speech to Virginia university students.
Nader said enough people die as a result of having no health insurance that it's as if the country suffers six 9-11 terrorist attacks a year.
He said pretty much everything worthwhile that the government is doing has been around for three decades or more, and even those old programs are shrinking from attrition. "We're lunching off the past."
"What is a corporation anyway?" he demanded. "It doesn't vote. It doesn't die in Iraq.... It dominates us. It's as if a robot emerges in our midst."
Drug laws are "demonic," he went on. And of the kids who are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, "most of them need love, an arm around the shoulder, attention, some time. Instead, they get Ritalin, an easy fix."
Third World countries? "We suck the minerals out of them. We brain drain them."
He asked the college students: "Are you being processed?" They sat quietly, some nodding in assent.
"How we pamper ourselves," he said contemptuously several times. He ticked through more of his list of wrongs.
"Does all this depress you?" he asked.
Finally a note of hope: "We can still reassert the sovereignty of the people."