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The Great Explainer

John Kerry has a lot of explaining to do.

6:28 AM, Jan 26, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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Nashua, New Hampshire

JOHN KERRY has some explaining to do. His record in 19 years as a U.S. senator has prompted liberal Democrats--Howard Dean, for one--to suggest he's too conservative and Republicans like party chairman Ed Gillespie to call him too liberal. For Kerry those charges are easily dismissed. What does cause trouble for Kerry is his need to explain and then explain some more the many contradictory votes and statements he's made over the years.

Sometimes his explanations are quite credible. On "60 Minutes" yesterday, he was shown a clip from an interview three decades ago in which he said he wasn't interested in running for president. Kerry's explanation was quite plausible. He said he felt at the time that his anti-Vietnam war activity would make a presidential bid impossible.

Sometimes his explanations are dubious. On "Fox News Sunday" in Manchester yesterday, he was asked by host Chris Wallace why he voted against the war in Iraq in 1991 after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait but for the invasion of Iraq last year. Dean also raised this issue yesterday. "Here is a gentleman who's running, who votes 'no' in 1991 when there are troops in Kuwait and oil fields are on fire, and then votes 'yes' and there turns out not to be a threat," Dean said.

In 1991, Kerry explained, "I thought we ought to kick Saddam Hussein out of Iraq. I said so on the floor of the Senate. But with the memories of Vietnam, I also thought we ought to take a couple of months more to build the support in the country." At the time, he joined a majority of Democrats in opposing the war. But his explanation now was different from theirs in 1991. Democratic leaders said they wanted to give economic sanctions a chance to work.

"This time I voted to give the authority to the president to use force under a set of promises by the president as to how he would do it," Kerry said. These were to "build a legitimate international coalition, exhaust the remedies of the United Nations, and go to war as a last resort. He broke every single one of those promises." The White House, of course, insists he met all those standards. Again, Kerry voted with the majority of Democrats.

His emergence as the Great Explainer is a problem for Kerry. Politicians prefer to be on offense, not defense. And while the need to explain isn't a major problem for Kerry now while Democratic presidential candidates are being nice to each other, it could get far worse. As the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Kerry is sure to be closely scrutinized by the media, as Dean was when he was the frontrunner. And if Kerry wins the nomination, the Bush campaign will try to put him on the defensive by playing up inconsistencies in his record.

On "Fox News Sunday," Kerry also was forced to explain his conflicting positions on gay marriage and the CIA. He voted against enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which says a state is not obligated to recognize a gay marriage legalized by another state. But Kerry said he's actually opposed to gay marriage.

So why not vote for DOMA, which passed overwhelmingly? Kerry said he thought the Senate was gay bashing and "being used to drive wedge issues." In fact, gay marriage "was no issue" at the time, he said. "That was politics."

On the CIA, Kerry sponsored a bill to cut $1.5 billion from the budget for intelligence gathering. Then after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, he asked why America's intelligence wasn't better. His explanation: He wanted the CIA to devote more money to human intelligence and less to technical means. He sought, he explained, "to change the culture of our intelligence gathering." He didn't explain, however, how slashing the CIA budget would achieve that.

At a rally in Nashua yesterday, Kerry raised two other issues that may require explaining. He criticized President Bush for withdrawing from the Kyoto global warming treaty in 2001. "You don't just walk away from a treaty [negotiated by] 160 countries over 10 years," he said. But in 1997, Kerry voted for a resolution, which passed 95-0, saying the United States "should not be a signatory" to the treaty. So on Kyoto, he'll have some explaining to do.

Kerry also declared he'd issue an executive order on his first day as president to bar federal employees who leave government from lobbying on federal issues for five years. However, it would probably require a law passed by Congress to do that. Once more, he has some explaining to do.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.