John Kerry, senator

The Democrat campaigns as a war hero, but barely mentions his two decades as a legislator, allowing the GOP to paint him as a flip-flopping ultra-liberal. What has he actually achieved?

By Tim Grieve

Published August 10, 2004 11:24PM (EDT)

"Judge me by my record," John Kerry told voters during his acceptance speech in Boston last month, but he gave them precious little evidence to go on. In a 5,000-word address that stretched on for nearly an hour, Kerry managed to find time for only 73 words about his two decades of service in the U.S. Senate.

It wasn't an accident, but it may have been a mistake. Throughout his presidential campaign, Kerry has focused on his service in Vietnam rather than on his service in the Senate. While war heroes surely play better than Washington insiders, Republicans sense vulnerability in Kerry's choice and are seeking to capitalize on it. With the president's approval ratings in dangerous territory and bad news coming in on Iraq and the economy, the GOP needs a way to persuade voters that, as bad as Bush might be, the Democrat is unacceptable. In Kerry's Senate record, the Bush-Cheney campaign sees a way to make that case. And Kerry, focused on his opponent's record rather than his own, seems to be letting it happen.

The Bush campaign has long worked hard to portray Kerry as both an unrelenting liberal and an unreliable flip-flopper. Since the Democratic Convention, these attacks have intensified and have focused more closely on his Senate record. As Kerry and John Edwards left Boston, the Bush campaign issued a press release claiming that, in 19 years in the Senate, Kerry saw just five of his bills and four of his resolutions become law. On Friday, Vice President Dick Cheney claimed -- falsely -- that the National Journal has deemed Kerry's lifetime Senate voting record more liberal than Ted Kennedy's. And over the weekend, the Bush campaign followed up with a new radio spot contrasting Kerry's tough talk on terrorism and taxes with votes plucked from his Senate record. The message: Kerry can't be trusted.

The Republicans' focus on Kerry's Senate tenure, coupled with his own failure to fill in the blanks, has left even some Kerry supporters with questions about his record. What has he accomplished in two decades in Washington, and what does his Senate record say about who he is? Is he a centrist Democrat -- a "Bush lite," as the left portrayed him during the Democratic primaries -- or is he the extreme liberal that the Bush-Cheney campaign now makes him out to be?

The truth, as Kerry might say, is full of "complexities." There is more than one way to be an effective senator, and Kerry has chosen a path -- investigation, not legislation -- that does not lend itself to a simplistic, compare-the-scorecards approach. And while it's true that Kerry has been a relatively liberal voice in the Senate, two decades of roll-call votes create a record that defies the black-or-white, all-or-nothing absolutism favored by the Bush administration and a media in search of easy labels.

On the morning after Kerry's convention speech, President Bush spoke at a baseball stadium in Springfield, Mo. His pitch: All those "clever speeches" and "big promises" in Boston couldn't hide the fact that Kerry has had "very few signature achievements" in the Senate.

On some level, Bush had a point. Although Kerry has spent two decades in the Senate, he is hard-pressed to identify big-ticket legislative accomplishments. No major legislation bears his name, and the few bills he has introduced and seen through to a presidential signature have been either ceremonial or relatively obscure -- measures like Senate Bill 1206 from 1994, which renamed a federal building in Waltham, Mass., and Senate Bill 791 from 1999, which made changes to something called the Women's Business Centers Program. While these bills may have been important to a relatively small group of people somewhere, they're not exactly McCain-Feingold or the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"Kerry has not been someone who initiated a lot of legislation," says David King, the research director for Harvard's Institute of Politics and the head of the university's program for newly elected members of Congress. King said that, by temperament and by his position as Massachusetts' junior senator, Kerry often found himself working in Ted Kennedy's shadow. Kerry left the heavy legislative lifting to Kennedy. When he has introduced bills, King said, "he would introduce them late in the session, just before an election. They were bills that you and I know were not going anywhere."

As the Boston Globe reported in its multi-part profile of Kerry, the senator stumbled during a 1996 debate when he was asked to name three things he had done to help the people of Massachusetts. "There was a targeted capital gains tax cut for start-up companies, he said, and reauthorization of federal fishing acts that gave funds to help fishermen, and a rewrite of the national flood insurance law." With more time to think, the Globe said, "Kerry might have improved his response -- but not by much."

Kerry had eight years to think before Howard Dean put a similar question to him in January. At a Democratic candidates' debate, Dean accused Kerry of having a modest legislative record. Rather than citing any accomplishments in his defense, Kerry suggested that the former Vermont governor didn't understand "how things work in Congress if you want to get things done." He said that there were ways to work behind the scenes on legislation, to get your bill passed on someone else's bill."

Kerry didn't do much better at last month's convention. "When I came to the Senate," he said in Boston, "I broke with many in my own party to vote for a balanced budget because I thought it was the right thing to do. I fought to put 100,000 police officers on the streets of America. And then I reached out across the aisle with John McCain to work to find the truth about our POWs and missing in action and to finally make peace in Vietnam."

Twenty years in the Senate, and that was it. His campaign tried to round out the picture with heartwarming video "moments" about the little things Kerry did as a senator -- he interceded with Little League officials to ensure that disabled kids could play ball, he came home from an overseas trip to mourn the deaths of local firefighters. The videos may have softened Kerry's aloof image, but in the end they probably spoke more to the skills of Kerry's constituent-services staff than to his own ability as a legislator.

Kerry's staff continues to argue that he has been an effective legislator in a behind-the-scenes way, leading the fight here, helping with an amendment there. The Kerry campaign also stresses that some other seemingly accomplished legislators, like Kennedy and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, have relatively low success rates when it comes to getting bills signed into law. In an e-mail to reporters last week, Kerry's campaign noted that Cheney saw only two of his bills become law during his 11-year run in Congress.

While the numerical comparison of bills passed makes for an easy tit-for-tat, Congress experts agree that it's a simplistic way of measuring relative senatorial success. "I don't think, taken by itself, that it's a fair way to compare," says Yale political science professor David Mayhew. "It's easy to get your name on something if you're the chairman of a committee." Besides, he says, "legislating is not the only thing that they do that makes them important." Mayhew says there are three ways for a member of Congress to distinguish himself: as a legislator, as a leader of the public discourse -- think Sunday talk regulars like Jesse Helms or Joseph Biden -- or as an investigator.

Kerry has made his mark as the latter. As freshman senators in 1985, Kerry and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin sent themselves on a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua to assess the dangers posed by the Sandinista government. Upon their return, Kerry began to receive tips suggesting that the Reagan administration was illegally funneling aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, the rebels struggling to overthrow the Sandinista government, and that the Contras were using supply chains established with U.S. assistance to carry on a bustling drug trade. Kerry took it upon himself to launch a probe. In the months ahead, he developed enough information to persuade more senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to conduct a full-scale investigation.

In a follow-up investigation, Kerry developed information that Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was trafficking in drugs and sending money out of the country to the Bank of Credit & Commerce International, or BCCI. Kerry launched another investigation and developed information leading to criminal indictments and the collapse of BCCI in 1991.

A year later, Kerry and Sen. John McCain led a Senate select committee assigned to investigate whether American prisoners of war were still being held in Vietnam. After an exhaustive investigation, they reported finding no evidence that any American was still being held. Based on that finding, the two Vietnam veterans, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, worked together in an effort that would ultimately lead President Clinton to normalize relations with Vietnam in 1995.

It's an impressive record of investigative work, but the Kerry campaign has said little about it. Indeed, as the New York Times noted over the weekend, the Kerry campaign seldom even uses the word "senator" to describe him. Part of that may stem from an understandable desire to avoid reminding voters that Kerry is a longtime Washington insider; in the last century, only two sitting senators -- Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy -- have gone straight from the Capitol to the White House. But in failing to define his Senate career himself, Kerry allows the Republicans to do it for him in a less than desirable way. The GOP isn't going to focus on Kerry's investigative work -- why play to his strengths, and why remind voters of the congressional investigations into 9/11 and the war on Iraq?

Instead, the Republicans focus almost exclusively on his Senate votes. In thousands of votes cast over 20 years, the Democratic nominee has been forced to take a public position on virtually every issue of public importance. With so many votes on so many bills, there's room for every sort of interpretation and spin. The Bush-Cheney campaign is interested in just one: Kerry is an extreme liberal, out of touch with "mainstream" America.

At a county fair in Mississippi last month, Republican Sen. Trent Lott declared Kerry a "French-speaking socialist" who is "more liberal than Ted Kennedy." The Republican leadership routinely refers to Kerry-Edwards as the "most liberal ticket" of all time, and the right's allies in the media repeat the charge. The truth is this: While Kerry's voting record puts him to the left side of what passes for the center in American politics today, it's a stretch to call him -- as Bush frequently has -- the nation's most liberal senator.

"Assertions that the Democrats' presumptive nominees are extreme liberals fall flat," Brookings Institution fellows Sarah Binder and Thomas Mann wrote in a recent Op-Ed piece based on a study of senators' lifetime voting records. "True, Mr. Kerry's voting record places him to the left of today's median Senate Democrat (Tom Daschle of South Dakota). But he is closer to the center of the Democratic Party than he is to the most liberal senators, including Mr. Kennedy."

To support the "most liberal senator" claim, the Bush-Cheney campaign points to the congressional vote ratings prepared by the National Journal. At a campaign stop in Minnesota Friday, Cheney said Kerry is "by National Journal ratings, the most liberal member of the United States Senate. Ted Kennedy is the more conservative of the two senators from Massachusetts. It's true. All you got to do is go look at the ratings systems. And that captures a lot, I think, in terms of somebody's philosophy. And it's not based on one vote, or one year, it's based on 20 years of service in the United States Senate."

The thing is, Cheney's claim is not "true." It's that other thing: "false." Earlier this year, National Journal identified Kerry as the senator with the most liberal voting record in 2003. When the National Journal looked at Kerry's entire Senate voting record -- "on 20 years of service in the United States Senate," as Cheney put it -- the magazine determined that Kerry was not the "most liberal" senator. In fact, the National Journal reported in March that "10 other current senators have a lifetime composite liberal score that is higher than Kerry's. And, yes, the top-10 list includes Massachusetts' other senator, Edward Kennedy, D-Mass." For the record, the National Journal's list of the top 10 "most liberal" sitting senators is: Mark Dayton, Paul Sarbanes, Jack Reid, Jon Corzine, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, Richard Durbin, Frank Lautenberg and Patrick Leahy.

The "11th most liberal senator" doesn't carry quite the sting that "most liberal senator" does, so the Bush-Cheney campaign and some in the media keep pushing the flashier -- but false -- charge. Last week on "Crossfire," for example, Tucker Carlson called Kerry "the most liberal member of the Senate by any measure of his votes."

But even the single "measure" the Republicans can cite credibly -- the National Journal's rating on Kerry's 2003 voting record -- can fairly be called into question. The National Journal ranks senators based on their votes in three categories: economic policy, social policy and foreign policy. However, because Kerry missed so many votes while campaigning in 2003, the National Journal lacked sufficient data to grade him on social policy or foreign policy. Thus, Kerry's 2003 ranking is based solely on his 2003 votes on economic policy -- an area in which the National Journal has traditionally seen Kerry as significantly more liberal than he is on, say, foreign policy.

And even when it comes to the 2003 economic policy votes the National Journal counted, it's not entirely clear that Kerry's views should be deemed "liberal." The National Journal included 32 Senate roll calls in its economic policy rankings. Kerry voted in 19 of those. In each of those 19, Kerry's vote was exactly the same as that cast by a majority of the Senate's Democrats. As the Democratic Leadership Council's Al From and Bruce Reed argued in a recent Op-Ed piece, the National Journal rankings are "based more on partisan than ideological differences, ensuring that most Democrats will have very liberal rankings."

On average, 46 senators -- including 3.6 Republicans -- sided with Kerry on the 19 votes used in his National Journal ranking. On 12 of the 19 votes, at least one Republican joined Kerry. On three of them -- votes against loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, against the study of offshore oil and gas drilling and against the privatization of air traffic controllers -- 10 or more Republicans joined Kerry. And it wasn't just crossover moderates like McCain or Maine's Olympia Snowe. North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole voted with Kerry on the offshore drilling measure; Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe voted with Kerry on the air traffic controllers; and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel voted with Kerry on a Medicare issue.

While Kerry led the National Journal's liberal rankings during the first few years of his Senate tenure, he moved to the middle after he was reelected in 1990. "Kerry was especially moderate in his second term when it came to foreign policy issues," the National Journal's Richard E. Cohen wrote in February as the magazine unveiled its 2003 rankings. "He opposed the liberal position in key Senate showdowns on missile defense and intelligence spending in 1993 and on procurement of additional F-18 Navy fighters in 1996 ... Kerry also voted with President Clinton and congressional Republicans, but against many liberals, in favor of welfare reform in 1996, and he occasionally split from organized labor on workplace issues."

The DLC's From and Reed, claiming Kerry as one of their own, point to a series of votes from the mid-1990s in which Kerry separated himself from more liberal members of his party. In addition to Kerry's 1996 vote on welfare reform, they cite his 1994 role in passing legislation that put 100,000 cops on the street, his vote for NAFTA and other trade measures, and his support for the balanced-budget agreement Bill Clinton struck with congressional Republicans in 1997.

That's not to say that Kerry is a conservative. While Kerry was attacked from the left during the primaries -- particularly for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq and for refusing to consider a broader repeal of Bush's tax cuts -- his overall Senate record is aligned closely with all of the usual Democratic Party causes.

Kerry has voted for abortion rights and, by and large, against the death penalty. He has a solid if not spectacular record on labor, and a near-perfect record with the NAACP. In 1996, he was one of only 14 senators who opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, the constitutionally questionable measure that says no state can be required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.

On Supreme Court nominees, Kerry has been reliably liberal. Although he voted to confirm Antonin Scalia, who sailed through the Senate on a unanimous vote in 1986, Kerry voted against the confirmations of Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas and David Souter, and he voted against William Rehnquist's elevation to chief justice. Like most Democrats, Kerry voted against John Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general.

Kerry's environmental record is also strongly liberal. He has been a leader in the fight against pollution and global warming, and he has helped prevent oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Until 2003 -- when missed votes cost him points -- Kerry won high scores from the League of Conservation Voters. Americans for Democratic Action gives Kerry a lifetime ranking of 92. ADA spokesman Don Kusler says that score puts Kerry just outside the liberal top 10 for current senators.

Kerry's high rankings on the left are matched by low rankings from the right. The American Conservative Union gave Kerry a 13/100 for 2003 but only a 5/100 overall. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which tracks business-friendly votes, gave Kerry a zero ranking in 2003. But as with the National Journal, the chamber relied on a small data set for 2003. "Kerry missed 14 of the 23 votes we scored, and he was against us on all of the other votes, and that's why he got a zero," explains Ron Eidshaug, a lobbyist for the chamber. For his Senate career, the chamber gives Kerry a 37/100, a ranking that puts him to the to the right of liberals like Kennedy, Paul Sarbanes and Russ Feingold.

Stanford professor David Brady says Kerry's Senate track record is exactly the right one for a Democratic senator who wants to be president. A Democrat who works more to the middle in order to "get stuff done" risks coming off as too conservative to get through the Democratic primaries, Brady says. A Democrat who clings too hard to the left -- a Barbara Boxer or a Ted Kennedy -- won't survive the general election.

"Kerry is sort of in between the can-do guys and the ideologues," says Brady, an expert on Congress at Stanford's Hoover Institution. "If you want to be president, you don't want to be Bob Dole and you don't want to be Tom Daschle because, over the years, the success of getting stuff done makes you a moderate in your party. But if you're too far left, they're going to beat the s--- out of you [in the general election] for being a lefty."

That's happening to Kerry anyway, of course. And -- not surprisingly, given all the terror alerts and the war in Iraq -- it's happening most often on the subject of defense. Both Bush and Cheney have taken to suggesting that Kerry seeks to "negotiate" with or "appease" terrorists. The Republicans underscore that line of attack by claiming that, as a senator, Kerry once sought to cut the nation's intelligence budget and cancel some of its most critical weapons systems.

The charges aren't entirely false, but they are deeply misleading. In its latest radio ad, the Bush-Cheney campaign claims that, after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, Kerry voted to cut $7.5 billion from the nation's intelligence budget. In fact, in 1994 -- as the end of the Cold War led many to believe that the United States could safely reduce its military spending -- Kerry proposed a deficit-reduction measure that would have cut, among other things, approximately $1 billion a year from the $30 billion intelligence budget for each of the next six years. When that proposal failed to pass, Kerry proposed the next year that the intelligence budget be reduced by $300 million a year for the next five years. That proposal didn't pass, either. But as the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center has noted in a Fact Check analysis criticizing the Bush-Cheney claim on Kerry's intelligence votes, a Republican proposal to cut $1 billion from the intelligence budget passed on a voice vote the same year.

The Bush-Cheney claims about Kerry's defense record are of a piece. In a charge circulated so widely on the Internet that the folks at have felt the need to debunk it as an "urban legend," Republicans say that Kerry has voted against the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the F-14, F-15 and F-16 fighters, the Apache helicopter, the Bradley fighting vehicle, the Abrams tank and a host of other critical weapons. In fact, Kerry did not vote against these weapons specifically. Rather, as the Annenberg fact check explains, Kerry simply voted against the overall defense appropriations bills in 1990 and 1995. Having voted in support of such bills at least 16 other years, Kerry is, on balance, a supporter of the weapons systems the Republicans accuse him of opposing. Moreover, Annenberg says, the first President Bush and his defense secretary, Dick Cheney, also advocated eliminating some of the same weapons Kerry opposed.

The Kerry campaign has begun to push back against some of these distortions. As soon as the Bush campaign released its new radio ad last week, Kerry's staffers responded with an e-mail to reporters in which they tried to set the record straight. And late last week, the Kerry campaign finally started to fight fire with fire over Kerry's vote on the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the war in Iraq. For months, the Republicans have attacked Kerry for voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq and then voting against an additional $87 billion for funding the war. They've mocked him for saying that he "voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it." In reality, there's little to mock there. Although Kerry explained himself badly, he voted for the Iraq funding when it was going to be paid for by rolling back the Bush tax cut for the very richest Americans. He voted against it when that funding proposal died and the entire amount was to be added onto the already exploding federal budget deficit.

Kerry and his people have been trying to make that point for months; last week, they finally made a more aggressive one: Twice during the negotiations over the $87 billion, they said, Bush's staff threatened he would veto the legislation if it wasn't drafted his way.

If Kerry's votes were a flip-flop, weren't Bush's threats, too? The "steady leader" would surely say no. But in posing the question, the Kerry camp sent a warning shot across the White House bow: Playing politics with voting records is a dangerous game, and it's one that both sides can play. The question now is, when -- if ever -- will the Kerry campaign begin playing that game for keeps?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections George W. Bush John F. Kerry