Rivals Mine Kerry Senate Years for Material to Slow Him Down
By TODD S. PURDUM
WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 The moment John Kerry began to seem like the candidate to watch in the Iowa caucuses, the campaigns of his Democratic rivals Howard Dean and Richard A. Gephardt swiftly used a handful of Mr. Kerry's decade-old Senate votes and statements against ethanol and agricultural subsidies to attack him as not supportive of Iowa's essential industry.
Now that his opponents are moving even more aggressively to slow Mr. Kerry's rise, his 19-year voting record as the junior senator from Massachusetts could loom as his greatest political vulnerability, to Democrats and Republicans alike. The sheer length of Mr. Kerry's service means that he has built a paper trail of positions on education, the military, intelligence and other issues stands that might have looked one way when he took them but that resonate differently now.
For example, at the end of the cold war, Mr. Kerry advocated scaling back the Central Intelligence Agency, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he complained about a lack of intelligence capability. In the 1980's, he opposed the death penalty for terrorists who killed Americans abroad, but he now supports the death penalty for terrorist acts. In the 1990's, he joined with Republican senators to sponsor proposals to end tenure for public school teachers and allow direct grants to religion-based charities, measures that many Democratic groups opposed. In 1997, he voted to require elderly people with higher incomes to pay a larger share of Medicare premiums.
The record is susceptible to two broad strands of attack. Mr. Kerry's rival Democrats point to a series of shifting stands on issues, like his qualified praise for the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and his vote authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. They say these are at odds with his claim to be the "real deal" Democratic alternative to Mr. Bush, capable of "standing up for people and taking on powerful interests," as he says in his stump speech.
"When it was popular to be a Massachusetts liberal, his voting record was that," said Jay Carson, a Dean campaign spokesman. "When it was popular to be for the Iraq war, he was for it. Now it's popular to be against it, and he's against it. This is a voting record that is a big vulnerability against Republicans in the general election. He's all over the place on this stuff."
Speaking with reporters in New Hampshire on Saturday, Dr. Dean used Senator Kerry's record to make a point about his own foreign policy experience.
"His voting record on Iraq is exactly the opposite of mine," Dr. Dean said, pointing to Mr. Kerry's votes against the Gulf War in 1991 and for the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq last fall. "I think mine has been proven to be right twice."
By contrast, the Republicans seek to paint Mr. Kerry as voting in lock step with, or even to the left of, his fellow Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.
"Whether it's economic policy, national security policy or social issues, John Kerry is out of sync with most voters," the Republican national chairman, Ed Gillespie, said in a speech on Friday.
Mr. Kerry's spokesman, David Wade, said the senator was "proud of his independence and unashamed that his resistance to orthodoxy leaves him hard to pigeonhole," adding that he had "fought a lifetime for what's right even when it's neither popular nor predictable." He added, "Ed Gillespie may be the last guy left who doesn't realize it's George Bush who's out of touch with the American people."
On a number of issues, including support for gun control, gay rights and the environment, Mr. Kerry has a long, consistent record. He has been a strong opponent of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and has earned a lifetime 96 percent "right" voting record from the League of Conservation Voters. His lifetime score from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is 90 percent, while his rating by the American Conservative Union stands at just 6 percent.
But on many issues, Mr. Kerry has often struck more nuanced, politically cautious positions than those broad assessments might suggest. After the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, Mr. Kerry proclaimed himself "delighted with seeing an institutional shake-up because I think we need one." A few months later, with President Bill Clinton locked in combat with the Republicans, Mr. Kerry voiced some doubts in a closed-door meeting of senators about the wisdom of trying to raise the minimum wage. And as Mr. Kennedy later recalled, he told Mr. Kerry, "If you're not for raising the minimum wage, you don't deserve to call yourself a Democrat."
Mr. Kerry's old friend Adam Walinsky, who helped him draft the strongly worded anti-Vietnam War speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that marked the start of his political career in 1971, noted the contrast between Mr. Kerry's outspoken youth and his much more cautious Senate career.
"His politics are not that bold," Mr. Walinsky said. "And it's a really interesting question as to why. Certainly, in the times when I met him and the issues we were involved with then, there was nothing cautious or hesitant. Maybe some of it is that horrible Washington groupthink."
A Kerry campaign aide said that if the campaign was forced to defend itself, it was "armed with a treasure-trove of votes that prove John Kerry's commitment to strong national defense, a stronger intelligence-gathering operation than George Bush has delivered, and to a long record of fighting the deficit, reforming education and restructuring welfare."
Mr. Kerry has a detailed record of positions on scores of topics a potential handicap for any incumbent senator running for the presidency. That may be one reason no one has made the leap directly since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
But unlike some of his colleagues with long records to defend, Mr. Kerry has never been especially popular with other Democrats in Congress and the party establishment. They have accused him of being too eager to be in the majority, too quick to position his vote for political advantage.
The rap on Mr. Kerry's Senate career, fellow senators and Congressional aides say, has been that he is more interested in high-profile investigations like those into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama than in the grinding details of legislative procedure. He has deferred to Mr. Kennedy on most bills involving health and education and has few major bills to his name; when asked to summarize his legislative accomplishments, he often seems to struggle.
But among the details of his legislative record, there is fertile ground for his rivals' attacks. Mr. Kerry voted for the USA Patriot Act, Mr. Bush's No Child Left Behind education bill and the Congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force in Iraq, only to sharply criticize all three once he became a presidential candidate. Mr. Kerry counters that his quarrel is with Mr. Bush's execution of the policies, but he struggled for months to explain his shifting stance on the Iraq war.
In 1991, Mr. Kerry voted with a majority of Democratic senators to oppose the first President Bush's use of force to repel Iraq from Kuwait, saying that the danger of a yes vote was "that those who vote for use of force will create a situation where it becomes more, rather than less, likely that the force they hope will not be used will, in fact, be used."
By contrast, in fall 2002, as he was weighing a presidential run, he voted with a narrower majority of Democratic senators to grant President Bush the right to use force to overthrow Saddam Hussein if necessary, "because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region."
Like his rival and fellow senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Mr. Kerry has since voted against Mr. Bush's request for billions of dollars for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq. He said that to do so would be to reward the administration for inept execution of prewar diplomacy that might have avoided the conflict, and of postwar planning for the American occupation.
Some criticism of Mr. Kerry goes back much farther. After the end of the cold war, he asked why the nation's "vast intelligence apparatus continues to grow even as government resources for new and essential priorities fall far short of what is necessary," as he put it in remarks in the Senate in 1997. He proposed a series of measures, most of which lacked sufficient support, to cut spending programs for intelligence.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Kerry said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," "The tragedy is, at the moment, that the single most important weapon for the United States of America is intelligence, and we are weakest, frankly, in that particular area."
In 1998, Mr. Kerry criticized the "stifling bureaucracy" of the public school system and called for an "end to teacher tenure as we know it," incorporating some of his ideas into a bill he co-sponsored with Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon. He also worked with Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, on a bill to allow direct grants to charities, including religious institutions, for certain early childhood education programs. Both measures were opposed by teachers unions and other Democratic constituencies.
Some of Mr. Kerry's rivals' attacks are not hard to answer. An e-mail critique circulated by the Dean campaign says that as a candidate for Congress in 1972, Mr. Kerry promised to cut military spending, without noting that the Vietnam War was then still under way and that Mr. Kerry was running not only as a decorated veteran of two tours there but as a national leader of veterans who opposed the war.