Speakers at this week's Republican convention have relentlessly attacked John F. Kerry for statements he has made and votes he has taken in his long political career, but a number of their specific claims -- such as his votes on military programs -- are at best selective and in many cases stripped of their context, according to a review of the documentation provided by the Bush campaign.
As a senator, Kerry has long been skeptical of big-ticket weapons systems, especially when measured against rising budget deficits, and to some extent he opened himself to this line of attack when he chose to largely skip over his Senate career during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last month. But the barrage by Republicans at their own convention has often misportrayed statements or votes that are years, if not decades, old.
Kerry did not cast a series of votes against individual weapons systems, as Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) suggested in a slashing convention speech in New York late Wednesday, but instead Kerry voted against a Pentagon spending package in 1990 as part of deliberations over restructuring and downsizing the military in the post-Cold War era.
Both Vice President Cheney and Miller have said that Kerry would like to see U.S. troops deployed only at the direction of the United Nations, with Cheney noting that the remark had been made at the start of Kerry's political career. This refers to a statement made nearly 35 years ago, when Kerry gave an interview to the Harvard Crimson, 10 months after he had returned from the Vietnam War angry and disillusioned by his experiences there. (President Bush at the time was in the Air National Guard, about to earn his wings.)
President Bush, Cheney and Miller faulted Kerry for voting against body armor for troops in Iraq. But much of the funding for body armor was added to the bill by House Democrats, not the administration, and Kerry's vote against the entire bill was rooted in a dispute with the administration over how to pay for $20 billion earmarked for reconstruction of Iraq.
In remarks prepared for delivery last night, Kerry denounced the Republican convention for its "anger and distortion" and criticized Cheney for avoiding the military draft during the Vietnam era.
Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt defended the statements made by convention speakers, though he declined to address details beyond supplying the campaign's citations of votes. "Whether it was in the '70s, '80s or '90s, Sen. Kerry has demonstrated a general pattern of hostility to a strong national defense," Holt said.
Votes cast by lawmakers are often twisted by political opponents, and both political parties are adept at combing through legislative records to score political points. Former senator Robert J. Dole's voting record was frequently distorted by the Clinton campaign eight years ago -- as well as by his GOP rivals for the Republican nomination.
One document frequently cited by Republicans is a 350-word article in the Boston Globe, written when Kerry was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and battling to win the Democratic nomination for senator in 1984 -- a period of soaring deficits in the wake of a huge defense buildup by President Ronald Reagan. Calling for a "strong defense," the article said, Kerry proposed to slow the rate of growth in defense spending by canceling 27 weapons systems, in part to reduce the deficit and also restore cuts Reagan had made in domestic programs.
While Cheney said Kerry opposed Reagan's "major defense initiatives," the campaign does not cite any votes against such defense programs while Reagan was president, relying instead on a campaign speech before he was elected senator.
Six years later, Kerry took part in a complex and serious debate in Congress over how to restructure the military after the Cold War.
Cheney, at the time defense secretary, had scolded Congress for keeping alive such programs as the F-14 and F-16 jet fighters that he wanted to eliminate. Miller said in his speech that Kerry had foolishly opposed both the weapons systems and would have left the military armed with "spitballs." During that same debate, President George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, proposed shutting down production of the B-2 bomber -- another weapons system cited by Miller -- and pledged to cut defense spending by 30 percent in eight years.
Though Miller recited a long list of weapons systems, Kerry did not vote against these specific weapons on the floor of the Senate during this period. Instead, he voted against an omnibus defense spending bill that would have funded all these programs; it is this vote that forms the crux of the GOP case that he "opposed" these programs.
On the Senate floor, Kerry cast his vote in terms of fiscal concerns, saying the defense bill did not "represent sound budgetary policy" in a time of "extreme budget austerity." Much like Bush's father, he singled out the B-2 bomber for specific attention, saying it is "one of the most costly, waste-ridden programs in a long history of waste, fraud and abuse scandals that have plagued Pentagon spending."
Asked why the campaign was attacking Kerry for having similar positions as Cheney, White House communications director Dan Bartlett responded: "I don't have the specifics of [when] then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was in charge of the Pentagon, but I think we'd be more than willing to have a debate on whether Dick Cheney or John Kerry was stronger on defense."
Appearing on CNN, Miller said he had "gotten documentation on every single one of those votes that I talked about."
Cheney, in his own speech, skipped over that period, going directly from Kerry's vote against authorization for the first Persian Gulf War to the post-Sept. 11, 2001, period.
Republican documents also cite a long list of Kerry votes against various weapons systems, including the B-2 bomber. But Kerry's opposition in the 1990s often hinged on his concerns about the impact on the budget deficit of congressional efforts to add money for the plane.
"We are going to build B-2 bombers even though the Pentagon does not want the B-2 bombers, even though the Pentagon never submitted a request for the B-2 bombers," Kerry said during a budget debate in October 1995.
Kerry's vote last year against the administration's $87 billion proposal to fund troops in Iraq and pay for Iraqi reconstruction has also been the focus of Republican attacks. "My opponent and his running mate voted against this money for bullets, and fuel, and vehicles, and body armor," Bush said last night.
Kerry actually supported all those things, but as part of a different version of the bill opposed by the administration. At the time, many Republicans were uncomfortable with the administration's plans and the White House had to threaten a veto against the congressional version to bring reluctant lawmakers in line.
In a floor statement explaining his vote, Kerry said he favored the $67 billion for the troops on the ground -- "I support our troops in Iraq and their mission" -- but faulted the administration's $20 billion request for reconstruction. He complained that administration "has only given us a set of goals and vague timetables, not a detailed plan."
Yesterday, the State Department said that only $1 billion of that money has been spent in the 11 months since the bill was passed.
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.