Is Kerry a flipper or a leaner?

Political ads dissected and explained.
May 28 2004 2:02 PM

Damned Spot

Is Kerry a flipper or a leaner?

(Continued from Page 1)

On the education bill, Bush's distortions are similar, as are Kerry's vulnerabilities. In "Accountability," the narrator asserts that after voting in favor of No Child Left Behind, "under pressure from education unions, Kerry has changed his mind." It's true that Kerry has tried to have it both ways on the issue, pandering to the education lobby by implying that he's against NCLB without ever saying he'd get rid of it. His Web site claims he "would fight to change" the law and that he has criticized Bush for signing it without funding it. But Kerry has never come out against No Child Left Behind, so the claim that he has reversed himself amounts to an exaggeration.

Will, I'd say these ads demonstrate the two most significant hallmarks of the presidential campaign thus far: Kerry's hedging and Bush's dishonesty.

To: Jacob Weisberg
From: William Saletan

I guess somebody's got to defend the difference between worming and pandering, of which Kerry is guilty, and back-flipping, of which he isn't. I'll try.

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Kerry explained his shifts on these two issues in a pair of speeches he delivered last fall. Here's what he said on Dec. 1, 2003:

I voted for the Patriot Act right after Sept. 11 … It had a number of flaws—but this wasn't the time to haggle. It was the time to act. But George Bush and John Ashcroft abused the spirit of national action after the terrorist attacks. … While the Administration assures us that some of these things [abuses of the Act] have not occurred, no one feels comfortable with these possibilities. It doesn't take a cynic to wonder about how far George Bush and John Ashcroft will go.

I find this explanation fascinating. Remember, this is prepared text. Kerry gave plenty of thought to the choice of words. There was a "time to act," and later there was a "time to haggle." This is Kerry's essence: He wants to act but always has caveats to haggle about. How does he choose which to do? By putting his finger on the zeitgeist. Sept. 11 was a "time to act," to suspend caveats. Two years later, with Howard Dean eating Kerry's lunch in the primaries, it was "time to haggle."

Do changes in policy, rather than changes in politics, account for Kerry's shift? You, Dahlia, and Julia make a good case that they don't. So does Kerry, inadvertently. His protestations about policy shifts by Bush and Ashcroft are practically self-refuting. He accuses Bush and Ashcroft of abusing "the spirit of national action," not the substance of the Patriot Act. Translation: They used no more power than Kerry gave them. All he can validly say is that they abused the "spirit" in which he gave them the power. This, as you point out, is the same complaint he always makes about the Iraq war resolution: that Bush abused the spirit of Kerry's supportive vote. It's comforting morally, but not politically. A president hands out powers and policies, not intentions. We've already got one who makes well-intentioned decisions with bad consequences. We don't need another.

Unable to document abuse of the Act, Kerry pleads that the mere "possibilities" of such abuse are too troubling. "It doesn't take a cynic to wonder about how far George Bush and John Ashcroft will go," he says. Evidently, however, it takes more than Kerry to wonder how far Bush and Ashcroft will go, since he voted for the Act knowing that they'd administer it. "Possibilities" are what a legislator is supposed to think through before he votes for a bill. The "possibilities" in the Patriot Act didn't change between 2001 and 2003. In short, the language in which Kerry argues that his shift wasn't political suggests strongly that, in fact, it was.

Was his shift on No Child Left Behind political, too? The only authoritative source the Bush campaign cites for this claim is Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote on April 5, 2004, "Pressured by rival Howard Dean's denunciations of the act and the unwavering opposition from groups representing teachers and school administrators, Kerry retreated from his [2003] book's powerful demand for accountability. Instead, he reversed himself to insist that schools be judged not only on outputs—their success in improving student performance—but inputs as well, such as whether teachers and students show up regularly."

But, wait a minute. What exactly did Kerry say in his book? Here's the passage Brownstein quotes: "It bothers me that some Democrats have resisted the idea of making educational outcomes—the skills and knowledge our kids obtain from the educational system—as important as educational inputs—the adequate funding, the good facilities and the higher teacher pay we all want." And what position did Kerry retreat to? According to Brownstein, "Rather than judging schools on whether they improve student proficiency in reading and math, [Kerry said] they should also be measured by other indicators, like graduation rates, teacher attendance and parental satisfaction."

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