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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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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.