Kerry Gets Boost From Surprising Sources
Ex-Bush Aide Criticizes President, and GOP Lawmakers Come to Senator's Defense
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2004; Page A06
Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign is getting an unexpected boost from an unlikely bunch: former Bush administration officials and congressional Republicans.
In the past week, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) have broken ranks and defended Kerry against President Bush's assertion that the Massachusetts senator is weak on national defense.
Over the weekend, Richard A. Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator, said Bush focused too little attention on al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and too much on Iraq afterward.
Clarke detailed his allegations in a book released yesterday. In it, he echoes criticism of Bush's judgment and fixation on Iraq that were leveled by former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill in his book, which was published in January. Together, McCain, Hagel, Clarke and O'Neill, wittingly or not, are helping Kerry undercut Bush's chief reelection message: that America is safer with this president in charge, GOP and Democratic strategists say.
Republicans are unintentionally assisting Kerry on the domestic front, too. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other congressional conservatives are accusing Bush of driving up deficits, a top Kerry campaign message, and misleading the country about the cost of the new Medicare law, another Kerry target. Kerry's campaign is circulating Flake's recent remark that Congress would not have passed the Bush Medicare law if members had been told of its projected cost. The Office of Management and Budget estimated the law would cost about $130 billion more than advertised, but those numbers were kept secret until well after the House passed the legislation by one vote. The flap over the Medicare number threatens to turn the law into a campaign liability for Bush.
Yesterday, Bush's new assault on Kerry's spending for his proposals prompted Democrats to highlight the large number of Republicans and conservative groups that have chided the president for his record-setting spending. Although Kerry's aides privately admit the Democratic candidate cannot fulfill all of his campaign promises and still reduce the deficit by half as promised, they say the Bush campaign relies on questionable assumptions to back up its contention that Kerry will spend $1 trillion more than he will save over the next decade.
Some Bush campaign officials privately fumed about the GOP comments as party strategists expressed concern. "Bush has some clear enemies that were part of his team," said GOP strategist Scott Reed. "It hurts Bush temporarily, but, while these are distractions, Kerry still has a long way to go to get into the game."
For Bush, who rarely ran into criticism from within his party during his first three years in office, the timing and tone of these GOP defections are undercutting his reelection message just as the presidential campaign is heating up.
"Even Republicans can't defend what the Bush-Cheney campaign says or does, particularly when the president is caught red-handed misleading America on the true cost of the war and covering up the real cost of his Medicare giveaway plan," said Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman.
For Kerry, the comments are a fortuitous distraction from what many Democrats described as an otherwise rough and uneven beginning to his general election campaign. Before hitting the slopes of Idaho for a vacation, Kerry appeared defensive and somewhat error-prone, several Democrats said, pointing to his comment that he voted for the $87 billion for Iraq before voting against it. The Bush campaign promptly included Kerry's comment in an ad to help make the point that the Democratic nominee is too indecisive to lead the nation at a time of war and terrorist threats.
To be sure, Kerry has faced criticism from within his party: Several congressional Democrats have said they do not want to campaign for reelection alongside the Massachusetts senator because his positions on guns and other social issues might not play well in conservative regions. But the criticism has gone largely unnoticed and has not become a campaign issue.
Kerry, who cruised through the nominating process with scant damage by historical measures, appeared rattled last week by Bush's attacks on national defense and terrorism -- until McCain stepped in and stepped on the Bush-Cheney message. McCain, who ran against Bush in the GOP primary four years ago, said on NBC's "Today" show that he does "not believe that [Kerry] is, quote, weak on national defense."
On Sunday, Hagel, a maverick Republican with a reputation similar to McCain's for speaking his mind, criticized the Bush campaign ad that called Kerry "weak on defense." Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Hagel said: "The facts just don't measure [up to] the rhetoric." He said it is unfair to isolate one or two votes over a 19-year career to make such a sweeping assessment of Kerry. "You can . . . take any of us, and pick out the different votes, and then try to manufacture something around it," he said.
Grover Norquist, a GOP lobbyist close to the White House, said, "McCain is just full of bitterness. Hagel is McCain's only friend in the Senate."
Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said the president remains "comfortable" with his assessment of Kerry, despite the brush- backs from fellow Republicans. "We will continue to make that argument throughout the campaign," he said.
While McCain and Hagel provided Kerry short-term cover, Clarke's comments could prove more damaging to Bush in the long run, Republican and Democratic strategists said. Clarke, who had a front-row seat to White House deliberations over al Qaeda and Iraq, is making the same case Kerry is -- that Bush could have done more to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and should have done more to hunt down Osama bin Laden. A top GOP strategist, who insisted on anonymity because he represents clients with interests before the Bush administration, said Clarke's comment also built Kerry's case that Bush may have something to hide.
In a broader context, Clarke sounded concerns expressed by O'Neill and John J. DiIulio Jr., the former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: that Bush is running an insulated White House driven by conservative ideology and politics. DiIulio, the first former Bush official to publicly criticize the president, said in a 2002 magazine interview that "it's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), right, with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), said he does not believe that Kerry is "weak on national defense."
(Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)