Setting John Kerry's voting record straight.

Setting John Kerry's voting record straight.

Setting John Kerry's voting record straight.

Military analysis.
Feb. 25 2004 6:41 PM

John Kerry's Defense Defense

Setting his voting record straight.

Against defense? Not Kerry
Against defense? Not Kerry

Before George W. Bush's political operatives started pounding on John Kerry for voting against certain weapons systems during his years in the Senate, they should have taken a look at this quotation:

After completing 20 planes for which we have begun procurement, we will shut down further production of the B-2 bomber. We will cancel the small ICBM program. We will cease production of new warheads for our sea-based ballistic missiles. We will stop all new production of the Peacekeeper [MX] missile. And we will not purchase any more advanced cruise missiles. … The reductions I have approved will save us an additional $50 billion over the next five years. By 1997 we will have cut defense by 30 percent since I took office.

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The speaker was President George H.W. Bush, the current president's father, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 1992.

They should also have looked up some testimony by Dick Cheney, the first President Bush's secretary of defense (and now vice president), three days later, boasting of similar slashings before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Overall, since I've been Secretary, we will have taken the five-year defense program down by well over $300 billion. That's the peace dividend. … And now we're adding to that another $50 billion … of so-called peace dividend.

Cheney proceeded to lay into the then-Democratically controlled Congress for refusing to cut more weapons systems.

Congress has let me cancel a few programs. But you've squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don't fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements. … You've directed me to buy more M-1s, F-14s, and F-16s—all great systems … but we have enough of them.

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The Republican operatives might also have noticed Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the same hearings, testifying about plans to cut Army divisions by one-third, Navy aircraft carriers by one-fifth, and active armed forces by half a million men and women, to say noting of "major reductions" in fighter wings and strategic bombers.

Granted, these reductions were made in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution and the Cold War's demise. But that's just the point: Proposed cuts must be examined in context. A vote against a particular weapons system doesn't necessarily indicate indifference toward national defense.

Looking at the weapons that the RNC says Kerry voted to cut, a good case could be made, certainly at the time, that some of them (the B-2 bomber and President Reagan's "Star Wars" missile-defense program) should have been cut. As for the others (the M-1 tank and the F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighter planes, among others), Kerry didn't really vote to cut them.

The claim about these votes was made in the Republican National Committee "Research Briefing" of Feb. 22. The report lists 13 weapons systems that Kerry voted to cut—the ones cited above, as well as Patriot air-defense missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and AH64 Apache helicopters, among others.

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It is instructive, however, to look at the footnotes. Almost all of them cite Kerry's vote on Senate bill S. 3189 (CQ Vote No. 273) on Oct. 15, 1990. Do a Google search, and you will learn that S. 3189 was the Fiscal Year 1991 Defense Appropriations Act, and CQ Vote No. 273 was a vote on the entire bill. There was no vote on those weapons systems specifically.

On a couple of the weapons, the RNC report cites H.R. 5803 and H.R. 2126. Look those up. They turn out to be votes on the House-Senate conference committee reports for the defense appropriations bills in October 1990 (the same year as S. 3189) and September 1995.

In other words, Kerry was one of 16 senators (including five Republicans) to vote against a defense appropriations bill 14 years ago. He was also one of an unspecified number of senators to vote against a conference report on a defense bill nine years ago. The RNC takes these facts and extrapolates from them that he voted against a dozen weapons systems that were in those bills. The Republicans could have claimed, with equal logic, that Kerry voted to abolish the entire U.S. armed forces, but that might have raised suspicions. Claiming that he opposed a list of specific weapons systems has an air of plausibility. On close examination, though, it reeks of rank dishonesty.

Another bit of dishonesty is RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie's claim, at a news conference today, that in 1995, Kerry voted to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget. John Pike, who runs the invaluable globalsecurity.org Web site, told me what that cut was about: The Air Force's National Reconnaissance Office had appropriated that much money to operate a spy satellite that, as things turned out, it never launched. So the Senate passed an amendment rescinding the money—not to cancel a program, but to get a refund on a program that the NRO had canceled. Kerry voted for the amendment, as did a majority of his colleagues.

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An examination of Kerry's real voting record during his 20 years in the Senate indicates that he did vote to restrict or cut certain weapons systems. From 1989-92, he supported amendments to halt production of the B-2 stealth bomber. (In 1992, George H.W. Bush halted it himself.) It is true that the B-2 came in handy during the recent war in Iraq—but for reasons having nothing to do with its original rationale.

The B-2 came into being as an airplane that would drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. The program was very controversial at the time. It was extremely expensive. Its stealth technology had serious technical bugs. More to the point, a grand debate was raging in defense circles at the time over whether, in an age of intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles, the United States needed any new bomber that would fly into the Soviet Union's heavily defended airspace. The debate was not just between hawks and doves; advocates and critics could be found among both.

In the latest war, B-2s—modified to carry conventional munitions—were among the planes that dropped smart bombs on Iraq. But that was like hopping in the Lincoln stretch limo to drop Grandma off at church. As for the other stealth plane used in both Iraq wars—the F-117, which was designed for non-nuclear missions—there is no indication that Kerry ever opposed it.

The RNC doesn't mention it, but Kerry also supported amendments to limit (but not kill) funding for President Reagan's fanciful (and eventually much-altered) "Star Wars" missile-defense system. Kerry sponsored amendments to ban tests of anti-satellite weapons, as long as the Soviet Union also refrained from testing. In retrospect, trying to limit the vulnerability of satellites was a very good idea since many of our smart bombs are guided to their targets by signals from satellites.

Kerry also voted for amendments to restrict the deployment of the MX missile (Reagan changed its deployment plan several times, and Bush finally stopped the program altogether) and to ban the production of nerve-gas weapons.

At the same time, in 1991, Kerry opposed an amendment to impose an arbitrary 2 percent cut in the military budget. In 1992, he opposed an amendment to cut Pentagon intelligence programs by $1 billion. In 1994, he voted against a motion to cut $30.5 billion from the defense budget over the next five years and to redistribute the money to programs for education and the disabled. That same year, he opposed an amendment to postpone construction of a new aircraft carrier. In 1996, he opposed a motion to cut six F-18 jet fighters from the budget. In 1999, he voted against a motion to terminate the Trident II missile. (Interestingly, the F-18 and Trident II are among the weapons systems that the RNC claims Kerry opposed.)

Are there votes in Kerry's 20-year record as a senator that might look embarrassing in retrospect? Probably. But these are not the ones.