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?

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"Accountability" and "Patriot Act" were produced for the Bush campaign by Maverick Media. To watch the ads on the Bush campaign Web site, click here. For transcripts, click here.

   

   

To: William Saletan
From: Jacob Weisberg

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The Bush line on Al Gore was that the 2000 Democratic nominee had a habit of fibbing and exaggerating. There wasn't much substance to this charge, but through repetition, it stuck. This time, the president is trying to undermine John Kerry in a similar way, with a slightly different accusation—that Kerry talks out of both sides of his mouth. I'm afraid there's a bit more substance to this criticism. The classic expression of the Gore charge was "I invented the Internet" (which Gore never really said). The killer Kerry quote is, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" (which Kerry really did say).

These new Bush ads try to bolster the Kerry's-a-weasel thesis in relation to two pieces of legislation, the Patriot Act and the president's "No Child Left Behind" education reform bill. The first ad, "Patriot Act," contends that after voting for the antiterrorism law, Kerry changed his positions because of liberal pressure (with surprising restraint, it avoids the term "ACLU"). The second ad, "Accountability," which is in Spanish, asserts that Kerry voted for Bush's ed bill but now opposes it because of pressure from the teachers unions. From the GOP perspective, the beauty of these spots, which have no special artistry, is that they zing Kerry both on sensitive issues and on character. If you don't buy the insinuation that Kerry is not to be trusted, you may accept the line that his positions are too "liberal." If you don't object to his positions, you may still find him devious. And if the ads really work their magic, you'll come away thinking Kerry is dangerously liberal and personally untrustworthy.

How fair are the specific charges? Kerry has indeed been inconsistent on the Patriot Act. Along with every Democratic senator except Russ Feingold, he voted for it in 2001, arguing that it was a tool prosecutors needed to fight terrorism. During the primaries, Kerry said he was unhappy with the bill and wanted to replace it with a new law. You can't prove that Kerry moved in this direction because of liberal pressure, as the ad claims, but it's a reasonable surmise. Kerry has specifically criticized only two aspects of the law. One is the library provision that liberal groups have been most vocal in protesting—but that Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner, in a dispassionate analysis for Slate, found to be among the less significant and troubling. Democrats seldom hesitate to attribute Bush's turns and twitches to pressure from the religious right or corporate lobbyists. He's doing no worse to Kerry.

On the other hand, the Bushies, in their factual backup for the ad, don't provide any evidence for the charge that Kerry wants to repeal provisions of the Patriot Act dealing with subpoenas, wiretaps, and surveillance, or that he'd give law-enforcement agents fewer powers to spy on terrorists than on drug dealers and mobsters. Kerry has been deliberately vague about how he'd change the law, suggesting that he mainly wants more judicial oversight and that his concern is the use of antiterrorism laws in ordinary criminal cases.

In responding to the ad, Kerry tries to justify his apparent change of heart in two ways. The first is by saying that he isn't against the Patriot Act per se, just that he doesn't like the way John Ashcroft has applied it. That's as specious as his subsequent defense of his vote on the Iraq War resolution: that he never imagined Bush would actually go to war with Iraq. C'mon. He's John Ashcroft. Kerry knew what the bill said and whom he was handing the power to. Kerry also never quite says how, exactly, Ashcroft has abused or misinterpreted the law. Kerry's second defense—that he doesn't really want to repeal the Patriot Act, merely to fine-tune it—is pretty weak as well. Kerry says he would keep 95 percent of the law's provisions. You could keep 95 percent of the Constitution and lose the Bill of Rights.

In sum, if Kerry hasn't done the full back-flip Bush claims on the Patriot Act, he's wormed and pandered around it enough to justify the shot.

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.

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."

Call me a Kerry shill, but I don't see the contradiction. Kerry wants to measure inputs and outputs. Furthermore, on May 7, a month after chiding Kerry, Brownstein applauded the senator for encouraging states "to impose accountability measures that teacher unions have resisted. … Kerry's new proposal, following his release Tuesday of a plan to reduce school dropout rates, tilts his education agenda back toward the accountability themes Bush has stressed." Funny, but the Bush campaign doesn't mention this piece.

Anyway, Kerry's principal beef with NCLB, as he has often explained, is that Bush didn't budget the funds necessary to help schools meet the new standards. And that really is a Bush shift, not a Kerry shift.

Jake, I agree that Kerry has tried to have it both ways on NCLB and the Patriot Act. But you also seem to agree that these ads misrepresent Kerry: He didn't "change his mind" on NCLB or urge repeal of the cited parts of the Patriot Act. Kerry isn't a flipper; he's a leaner. He's got a "yes" foot and a "but" foot. He leans on one foot, then the other, depending on which way the wind blows. But he keeps both feet on the ground.

I prefer Kerry's flaw to Gore's. Gore oversimplified things. Kerry overcomplicates them. The latter may be cowardly, but I don't think it's dishonest.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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