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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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.