The waffles of John Kerry.

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March 3 2004 5:46 PM

John Kerry's Waffles

If you don't like the Democratic nominee's views, just wait a week.

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Last week, President Bush offered a wry critique of his Democratic challengers. "They're for tax cuts and against them. They're for NAFTA and against NAFTA. They're for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. They're in favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts." Now that John Kerry is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Republicans are sure to focus the spotlight on his history of flip-flops. Kerry did vote for the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the war in Iraq, even though he constantly trashes the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the war in Iraq. He voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which limited marriage to a man and a woman, but he now says marriage should be limited to a man and a woman. (Although he also points out that he once attended a gay wedding.) And those are just the better-known issues on which Kerry has "evolved."

Here, then, since John Edwards was too polite to mention them (though President Bush won't be), is a guide to some of Kerry's other reversals on substantive issues. This list doesn't include quickly withdrawn gaffes, such as Kerry's recent suggestion (retracted after an uproar from Jewish groups) that he might make James Baker or Jimmy Carter his Middle East envoy. It doesn't include long-renounced youthful indiscretions, such as his proposal after returning from Vietnam to eliminate most of the CIA. It doesn't include less clear-cut sins of omission and opportunism, such as his stirring denunciations of companies caught in accounting frauds, even though he supported a 1995 law protecting those companies from liability. And it doesn't include the inevitable fund-raising hypocrisies that accompany all modern campaigns, such as his donations from some of the "Benedict Arnold" companies he routinely rips on the trail, or his bundling of contributions from special interests despite his high-minded rejection of PAC money. Even so, the list is long, and it isn't all-inclusive. Kerry's supporters cite his reversals as evidence of the senator's capacity for nuance and complexity, growth and change. His critics say they represent a fundamental lack of principles. Either way, we'll be hearing a lot about them over the next eight months.

Issue Kerry's Original Position Kerry's Revised Position
Welfare ReformIn 1988, Sen. Kerry voted against a proposal to require at least one parent in any two-parent welfare family to work a mere 16 hours a week, declaring the work requirement "troublesome to me." During his 1996 re-election campaign, when his Republican challenger, Gov. William Weld, was calling him soft on welfare, Kerry voted for the much stricter welfare reform law that Clinton signed into law.
Mandatory MinimumsIn 1993 and 1994, the senator from liberal Massachusetts voted against mandatory minimum sentences for gang activity, gun crimes, drug trafficking, and drug sales to minors, explaining in an impassioned speech that long sentences for some dealers who sell to minors would be "enormous injustices" and that some convicted drug offenders were "so barely culpable it is sad." He also said congressionally imposed mandatory minimums made no sense and would just create turf battles between federal and local prosecutors. Today, presidential candidate Kerry strongly supports mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes, including the sale of drugs to minors.
Affirmative ActionIn 1992, Kerry created a huge stir among liberals and civil rights groups with a major policy address arguing that affirmative action has "kept America thinking in racial terms" and helped promote a "culture of dependency." Today, Kerry's campaign Web site vows to "Preserve Affirmative Action," noting that he "consistently opposed efforts in the Senate to undermine or eliminate affirmative action programs, and supports programs that seeks to enhance diversity." It doesn't mention any downside.
Death PenaltyDuring one of his debates with Weld in 1996, Kerry ridiculed the idea of capital punishment for terrorists as a "terrorist protection policy," predicting that it would just discourage other nations from extraditing captured terrorists to the United States. Kerry still opposes capital punishment, but he now makes an exception for terrorists.
Education ReformIn a 1998 policy speech the Boston Globe described as "a dramatic break from Democratic dogma," Kerry challenged teachers unions by proposing to gut their tenure and seniority systems, giving principals far more power to hire and fire unqualified or unmotivated teachers. Today, Kerry once again espouses pure Democratic dogma on education. His Web site pledges to "stop blaming and start supporting public school educators," vowing to give them "better training and better pay, with more career opportunities, more empowerment and more mentors." It doesn't mention seniority or tenure.
Double TaxationIn December 2002, Kerry broke with Democratic dogma yet again in a Cleveland speech, calling for the abolition of the unfair "double taxation" of stock dividends in order to promote more investment and more accurate valuations of companies. Five weeks later, after President Bush proposed a second round of tax cuts that included an end to this double taxation, Kerry changed his tune. He voted against the dividend tax cuts that were ultimately enacted by Congress and now hopes to roll them back as president, along with Bush's other tax cuts for upper-income Americans.
Gas TaxationIn 1994, when the Concord Coalition gave Kerry a failing rating for his deficit reduction votes, he complained that he should have gotten credit for supporting a 50-cent increase in the gas tax. Today he no longer supports any increase in the gas tax.
Social SecurityDuring the 1996 campaign, when I was a Globe reporter, Kerry told me the Social Security system should be overhauled. He said Congress should consider raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits and called it "wacky" that payroll taxes did not apply to income over $62,700. "I know it's all going to be unpopular," he said. "But this program has serious problems, and we have a generational responsibility to fix them." Kerry no longer wants to mess with Social Security. "John Kerry will never balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors," his Web site promises.
TradeKerry has been a consistent supporter of free trade deals, and as late as December, when reporters asked if there was any issue on which he was prepared to disagree with Democratic interest groups, Kerry replied: "Trade." Slate editor Jacob Weisberg came away impressed by the depth of Kerry's commitment to the issue: "Unlike Edwards, he supports international trade agreements without qualification." But that was three months ago! In recent weeks, when Kerry has talked trade, he has talked nothing but qualification, calling for "fair trade" rather than "free trade," claiming to agree completely with the protectionist Edwards on trade issues, and vowing to "put teeth" into environmental and labor restrictions in agreements like NAFTA.

Michael Grunwald, a staff reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.

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