In the stump speech he delivers virtually every day, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) stirs the Democratic faithful by railing against current trade practices and slamming President Bush's policies on education, civil liberties and Iraq.
But the Democratic front-runner does not mention how he, as senator, supported the president on all four issues, helping cement in law what he often describes as flawed government policies.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), left, thanks Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) for his endorsement. Center, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
(Kathy Willens -- AP)
Kerry's past support for policies he now condemns is complicating his run for the White House, strategists from both parties say, and could prove problematic in a general election showdown with Bush. The president himself seized on this contrast in his opening attack on Kerry at a dinner last night of the Republican Governors Association.
Tony Coelho, chairman of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said it is "critical" that Kerry "clearly" explain his votes "before the public perceives him as a flip-flopper." If not, Bush "will tag him," Coelho said.
To differentiate himself from Bush, Kerry faults the president on the "implementation" of the laws governing education, trade, civil liberties and the military operation in Iraq. Kerry says Bush underfunded the No Child Left Behind education law; abused the search and seizure powers of the USA Patriot Act; rushed to war once granted congressional authorization; and failed to crack down on abuses by U.S. trading partners.
"This is the biggest 'say one thing, do another' administration in the modern history of our country," Kerry said in a telephone interview yesterday. He stood by his votes but blasted Bush for the way he implemented the new laws.
Because Kerry essentially advocates trimming, tweaking or tightening these Bush policies, voters seeking more dramatic changes might turn to independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader as they did in 2000, some Democrats say.
On his new Web site, Nader lists the Bush policies Democrats such as Kerry supported in Congress, and asks: "At what point do you stop relying on a party to be an opposition party and start asking what else needs to be done to put some spine into Washington politics?"
At the same time, Bush's political team plans to turn Kerry's votes for the Bush agenda against the four-term senator if he becomes the Democratic nominee. "Kerry can't run from his record," said Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush campaign.
Already, Bush's political team is compiling laudatory remarks Kerry has made about White House policies and might spin some of them into television ads defending the president, according to Bush campaign officials. "When he makes the case against things he voted for, it highlights the fact he's hypocritical," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Kerry's chief rival for the nomination, is framing his campaign around the Massachusetts senator's support for free-trade policies, including those enacted by the Bush administration. With job losses, especially in the manufacturing sector, already a key issue of the 2004 election, Edwards is blaming trade policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement for much of the current economic problems. Kerry voted for NAFTA in 1993 under President Bill Clinton and has since been a consistent free-trade advocate. Edwards, who was elected in 1998, said he opposed NAFTA, though he rarely raised the issue until recently.
In a speech to the AFL-CIO last week, Kerry accused the White House of allowing "foreign countries to engage in unfair trading practices." If elected, "I will insist on real worker and environmental provisions in the core of every trade agreement," he said.
Yet in the Senate, Kerry voted for a Bush trade agreement with Chile and Singapore that some Democrats complained did not mandate tough enough labor and environment standards. Kerry also voted twice to provide Bush greater authority to negotiate trade agreements by granting "fast track" power, which requires a straight up-or-down vote from Congress and precludes the House and Senate from amending the trade pacts.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who endorsed Kerry after dropping out of the race, has complained that the trade pact with Chile and Singapore and the fast-track bill "failed" to protect workers, human rights and the environment.
Kerry has said that, unlike Bush, he would mandate and enforce such protections. He has also been critical of the trade imbalance with China, the largest exporter to the United States, though he voted to expand the country's trading rights in 2000, as did Edwards, before Bush took office. In the interview, Kerry said Bush officials "don't fight for the worker and for the fairness of the implementation" of trade agreements.
During the Senate debate over the No Child Left Behind bill in December 2001, Kerry declared: "This is groundbreaking legislation that enhances the federal government's commitment to our nation's public education system, dramatically reconfigures the federal role in public education, and embraces many of the principles and programs that I believe are critical to improving the public education system."
Yesterday, Kerry vowed on the campaign trail to hold Bush accountable "for making a mockery" of the new education law's title. Kerry criticized Bush for failing to provide states and schools enough funding and flexibility to meet the new performance standards.
Kerry has had the hardest time explaining to voters why he supported the congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war but later opposed the $87 billion bill to fund the reconstruction effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. In last week's Democratic debate, Kerry offered a lengthy explanation of how he supported a "process" for winning international support for any military operation and pressuring then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow tougher weapons inspections.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), a frequent Kerry booster, and many other Democrats warned before the vote that Bush would quickly rush to war unless Congress stopped him by defeating the war resolution.
Like most members of Congress, Kerry also voted for the Patriot Act, which provided law enforcement officials greater powers to track and detain potential terrorists. During the Senate debate in 2001, Kerry said he was "pleased" with the anti-terrorism legislation but expressed concerns about surveillance powers he now criticizes. If elected, Kerry said, he would change how the government conducts surveillance and detains alleged terrorists.