The Magazine

The Many Faces of John Kerry

From the February 9, 2004 issue: His record offers several avenues for GOP attack. Or does it?

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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LET'S SAY you're a Republican strategist. It's around 10 P.M. on Tuesday, January 26, and you're watching Senator John Kerry, Democrat from Massachusetts, deliver his valedictory speech to supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire. Kerry has just been declared the winner in the New Hampshire primary. A week earlier, he won the Iowa caucuses. You remember that no Democratic presidential candidate who won back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire has ever lost his party's nomination. Kerry, you realize, is now the Democratic frontrunner. By a million miles.

For six months, Republicans have anticipated running against former Vermont governor Howard Dean. They couldn't wait to attack Dean's antiwar stance, his call for total repeal of the Bush tax cuts, his secularism, and his temperament. They had their clever cable-TV soundbites at the ready: Dean was George McGovern and Walter Mondale all rolled into one angry politician.

But what will they say about Kerry? Watching Kerry speak to his supporters, one has to concede he looks presidential. His baritone conveys gravitas. He sounds eager to defend his 19-year record as a senator. His supporters sound eager, too: When Kerry tells them that he has "only begun to fight," they break out into a chant of "Bring It On! Bring It On!" The chant has become a Kerry slogan, a sort of shorthand used to describe the belief among Kerry supporters--and, apparently, among Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers--that the senator is the only Democrat who can stand toe-to-toe with President Bush.

Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is in the business of proving them wrong. Addressing an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Virginia, a few days before the New Hampshire primary, he laid out a plan for dealing with the new Democratic frontrunner.

"Kerry," Gillespie said, is "one of the most liberal members of the Senate." More so, in fact, than the senior senator from Massachusetts: "Americans for Democratic Action--the premier liberal rating organization--puts [Kerry's] lifetime rating at 93 percent," Gillespie noted. "Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy has a lifetime rating of 88 percent--five points less."

Gillespie paused. "Who would have guessed it?" he asked. "Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!"

Gillespie's joke got a lot of laughs. But was it an accurate assessment of Kerry's vulnerabilities? Will Republicans have no trouble portraying the senator as a Massachusetts liberal? As soft on national security? As an aloof aristocrat? Republican strategists say Kerry is vulnerable in four areas--his antiwar activity 33 years ago, his record on taxes, his record on national security, and his social liberalism. Let's see how the newly anointed Democratic frontrunner measures up.

VIETNAM. Kerry campaign staffers are confident the senator's service in Vietnam inoculates him from charges that he is "soft" on national security. Maybe. Of course, Kerry's heroism during the Vietnam War is well-established. In 1969, as the captain of a Swift boat, the future senator ferried U.S. soldiers across the waters of the Mekong Delta. He served bravely. One of the war stories you hear a lot is how Kerry saved the life of a Green Beret named Jim Rassman, who went overboard during a gunfight. These days Rassman, a registered Republican, stumps for Kerry. "I'm switching registration to vote for John Kerry," Rassman tells campaign audiences.

Kerry was wounded three times in Vietnam. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star. But it's what happened after he came back to the United States that Republican strategists see as a potential vulnerability. In 1971, Kerry became involved in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an antiwar group with ties to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda. Kerry served as the group's spokesman, marched on the Capitol, and testified before Congress. His role in Vietnam Veterans Against the War made him famous and, to some, infamous. The Nixon administration had a file on Kerry.

Kerry has said that the antiwar movement was a "movement of conscience." He has said that he was "proud" to have marched on the Capitol in 1971. But he will still have to answer questions about his antiwar activities. For many years, critics have derided Kerry for what they saw as his opportunistic involvement with the antiwar movement. They love to recount how, in a famous episode, Kerry threw other people's medals onto the Capitol steps in 1971, along with ribbons of his own. New criticisms have surfaced in the last few weeks. For example, Ed Gillespie told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that during the famous 1971 protest, "accounts of that...demonstration had [Kerry] staying in a friend's Georgetown townhouse while the masses stayed in tents."

Last week, a weightier criticism of Kerry's antiwar activity was made by the military historian Mackubin Thomas Owens. Owens penned an article in which he called attention to Kerry's involvement in the "Winter Soldier Investigation." The investigation, conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was a collection of interviews with, writes Owens, "individuals purporting to be Vietnam veterans," who recounted rampant atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Placed in the Congressional Record by Sen. Mark Hatfield, the Winter Soldier Investigation was considered so extreme that even critics of the war like Neil Sheehan and James Reston disputed its more outrageous claims. For Kerry, however, the investigation was the basis of his critique of the Vietnam conflict and a centerpiece of his 1971 testimony before Congress. He has never disavowed it.

Will any of this make a difference if Kerry is the Democratic nominee? Probably not. Peter D. Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University and a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, says that Kerry--a Vietnam veteran who looks back at the war as a mistake--represents "broad cultural trends." Feaver points out that if you ask Americans whether the United States should have stayed out of Vietnam, as the New York Times did in 2000, 60 percent say yes. Only 24 percent say the United States did the right thing. "The people who would be bothered by Kerry's antiwar activism," Feaver concludes, "are already going to vote for Bush."

TAXES. In November 2003, Jim Jordan, John Kerry's departing campaign manager, sent a memo to his replacement, Mary Beth Cahill. The memo, which was leaked to ABC News, provides an insider's look at the Kerry campaign. "You'll be tempted to ask the research shop to get you a memo on The Candidate's achievements in Congress," Jordan wrote. "Save yourself some time and don't."

Maybe Jordan was trying to avoid talking about Kerry's record on taxes. Republican strategists giddily recite the list of all the tax cuts Kerry has voted against in his 19 years in the U.S. Senate. They cite Kerry's votes against the Bush tax cuts in 2001. And his vote against the Bush tax cut in 2003. And his many votes against eliminating the marriage penalty--at least 12 by one count. And the fact that in 1993, he voted twice for President Clinton's budget plan, which raised taxes by $240 billion. And the fact that, in 1996, after he voted to raise gasoline taxes, Kerry told the Boston Globe he was "very proud" of the vote.

Still, Kerry insists he is a tax cutter at heart, but one seriously concerned about balanced budgets. "When I came to the Senate in 1985, the highest rate of tax was 72 percent," he told Fox's Chris Wallace recently. "I voted to lower it to 28 percent. I have voted for capital gains tax cuts. I voted for incentives for businesses to grow." All true.

These days, Kerry is running on a tax increase for the wealthy--specifically, individuals making more than $200,000 a year; he would leave intact the Bush tax cuts for people who make less. He seems eager to debate the president on the issue, which he will use to portray himself as a fiscal conservative. Debating tax cuts is "a fight we deserve to have in this country," he told the Washington Post. "That's a fight we will win."

NATIONAL SECURITY. Kerry wants to combat the idea that Democrats are soft on national security. "I not only welcome that fight, I relish it," he told Newsweek recently. "If that's what they want, then I say to them, 'Bring it on!'"

GOP chairman Gillespie has obliged on that point, too, in a recent address to the Republican National Committee. Gillespie named vote after vote in which Kerry sought to cut the nation's defense budget. The list is exhaustive, and exhausting. There's the 1991 vote to cut the Defense Department by $3 billion; the 1992 vote to cut an additional $6 billion; the 1993 vote against a military pay raise; the 1995 vote to freeze defense spending for seven years; the votes against the B-2 bomber, the Apache helicopter, the Patriot missile, the F-15 fighter . . . you get the idea.

Of course, Kerry wasn't the only senator to vote for decreases in the defense budget during the 1990s. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, slashing defense appropriations became a bipartisan activity--a fact that Republicans will ignore during the upcoming campaign.

But Kerry may have more trouble explaining his positions on two other national security issues. The first is intelligence. In 1995, he voted to cut $80 million from the FBI's budget. Also in 1995, he introduced a bill that would have reduced the overall intelligence budget by $1.5 billion by the year 2000. The bill, which never came to a vote, was similar to one Kerry proposed in 1994. The 1994 bill would have cut $1 billion from the budgets of the National Foreign Intelligence Program and from the Tactical Intelligence Program, and while it didn't come to a vote, either, Kerry submitted the language in another appropriations bill--only to see it defeated.

Kerry has said that these votes and proposals were attempts to "change the culture of our intelligence gathering." Soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, Kerry complained about the lack of funds the intelligence establishment received. "And the tragedy is," Kerry told Bob Schieffer on CBS's "Face the Nation" in September 2001, "at the moment, the single most important weapon for the United States of America is intelligence. It's the single most important weapon in this particular war."

So why did he vote to cut intelligence appropriations over the last decade? Kerry's campaign didn't return calls for comment.

The other issue that may cause Kerry trouble is Iraq. In 1991, Kerry joined most of his fellow Democratic senators in voting against the Gulf War. At the time, he said he did not want to see U.S. soldiers die unless it was absolutely necessary. In a speech delivered on the Senate floor, he asked, "Is the liberation of Kuwait so imperative that all those risks are worthwhile at this moment?" Then he used a phrase that he would recycle 11 years later: "There is a rush to war here. We are willing to act, it seems, with more bravado than patience."

In 1998, after Kerry voiced support for Operation Desert Fox, in which the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for three days, Kerry was asked whether he had cast the wrong vote in 1991. "My speech on the floor of the Senate [in 1991] could not have been clearer about my support for military force," he said. Then why, exactly, had he voted against the 1991 war? Again, Kerry wouldn't say.

The truth is, Kerry's votes on Iraq over the last ten years have been wildly inconsistent: He voted against war in 1991, for war in 2002, and then against the $87 billion appropriation for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. What will happen, asks Peter Feaver, when Republicans ask Kerry, "Tell me the conditions under which you will use force?" It's a question for which the candidate doesn't seem to have a coherent answer.

THE L-WORD. Since 1980, four Massachusetts Democrats--Edward Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry--have run for president of the United States. So far, three have lost. Will Kerry, the fourth, be able to break the pattern?

Not if Republicans successfully label Kerry a "Massachusetts liberal." When you mention Kerry's name, Republican strategists like to talk about Dukakis, for whom Kerry served as lieutenant governor. They talk about how, when Kerry was first elected lieutenant governor, in 1982, Dukakis was considered the more moderate politician. They talk about Massachusetts's notorious prison furloughs (even for murderers sentenced to life without parole), which Kerry, like Dukakis, supported.

They talk about Kerry's voting record in the Senate. Kerry has voted six times against banning partial-birth abortion. He's voted against requiring parental notification for minors who want an abortion. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against a bill that would have withheld federal funds from schools that prohibited the Boy Scouts of America from using their facilities.

Kerry's record on social issues could be what leaves him most vulnerable to Republican attacks. Take his position on abortion, which has evolved over the years. When he first ran for Congress in 1972, Kerry said he thought abortion was "for the states to decide." No longer. When Howard Dean attacked Kerry's record on abortion rights in late January, Kerry responded by saying that he was the only Democratic presidential candidate who hadn't "played games" on the issue. "If you believe that choice is a constitutional right, and I do," Kerry said, "and if you believe that Roe v. Wade is the embodiment of that right . . . I will not appoint a justice to the Supreme Court of the United States who will undo that right."

Kerry's position on the death penalty has also evolved. For years, Kerry opposed capital punishment in all cases. In 1996, during a debate with Massachusetts governor William Weld, who was challenging Kerry for his Senate seat, Kerry said Weld's support of capital punishment for terrorists "would amount to a terrorist protection policy." Kerry's position, on the other hand, "would put them in jail." Six years later, in 2002, Kerry changed his mind. He told NBC's Tim Russert, "I am for the death penalty for terrorists because terrorists have declared war on your country." Kerry still opposed the death penalty "in the criminal justice system," he told Russert, "because I think it's applied unfairly."

When it comes to gay marriage, Kerry has tried to square the circle. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act but insists he's against gay marriage nonetheless. Why did he vote against DOMA? "I . . . don't support the United States Senate being used for gay bashing," he told Fox's Chris Wallace, "for, sort of, discriminatory efforts to try to drive wedges between the American people."

Will the Republican strategy of labeling Kerry a Massachusetts liberal have traction? After all, Kerry voted for welfare reform in 1996. He voted to balance the budget on several occasions. He's questioned the Democrats' allegiance to teachers' unions and affirmative action, only to back off. "I don't think being from Massachusetts is a political asset," says Alan Brinkley, the Columbia historian. "But is it a huge liability? I'm not sure." Brinkley says that Boston doesn't quite have the same cultural resonance as a bastion of liberalism that, say, San Francisco does.

"The question is," says one Democratic strategist, "Will these attacks stick?" Kerry, this strategist says, won't be as easily caricatured as Al Gore. Gore's campaign let the media paint a picture of him as wooden and prone to fabrications. Kerry's people, says the strategist, are "too smart to let that happen again."

Others agree. "One of the things the Kerry campaign will be good at," says Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant, "is saying, 'Look at the whole record.' You're not talking here about somebody who could be classified as a knee-jerk ideologue."

"Does he have as strong a firewall" against being labeled a liberal "as, say, Lieberman does?" Fenn asks. "Maybe not. Is it enough to beat George Bush? Absolutely."

Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Correction appended 2/02/2004: The "memo" from former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan to Mary Beth Cahill referenced in this article was, in fact, a satirical parody of a memo written by the political staff of ABC News. We regret the error.