Now that John Kerry has about wrapped up the Democratic presidential nomination, outlines of the Republican strategy for defeating him this fall are starting to emerge. In Texas, President Bush said, “My opponent clearly has strong beliefs?they just don’t last long.” A Republican National Committee Internet cartoon that depicted two images of Kerry in a boxing ring fighting over 30 policy issues got lots of attention on the cable news programs.
On March 6, the New York Times ran a long article analyzing Kerry’s recent shifts of position on issues like gay marriage, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and the death penalty. While noting Republican attacks on Kerry, David M. Halbfinger sought to explain away Kerry’s policy shifts. He cited aides, close associates, and Democratic strategists as saying that Kerry’s “fluidity is the mark of an intellectual who grasps the subtleties of issues.” A former Gore advisor told him that Kerry’s indecisiveness simply reflected the kind of inner conflict many Americans feel over divisive social issues.
Halbfinger did cite Kerry’s tendency to deny positions that he has taken in the past, such as his shifting stance on a Massachusetts court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. On February 5, Kerry pronounced the court decision “dead wrong.” On February 24, when asked why he thought so, he responded, “I didn’t say it wasn’t.” Recently, we noted his response to CNN’s Judy Woodruff’s question about his 1971 allegations that U.S. servicemen committed atrocities against Vietnamese civilians. “I never said that,” he told Woodruff.
But the hardest shots at Kerry thus far have come from columnists, activists, and some media outlets more on his side of the political spectrum. Their criticisms focus on Kerry’s supposed lack of political courage. Everyone is quick to say that his physical courage isn’t in doubt; he proved that in Vietnam, the story line goes. But as the Times endorsement in late February put it, “We wish we could see a little of the political courage of the Vietnam hero who came back to lead the fight against the war.”
Writing in the liberal L.A. Weekly, Bill Bradley charged, “Kerry at times seems a profile of caution.” As a Senator, Bradley writes, Kerry has been viewed as a “cautious figure, even to a fault.” In the Washington Post, columnist Marjorie Williams accused Kerry of “opportunism” and “short term political expediency.” She concluded that Kerry’s positions are rarely based on “core principle?or even by a consistently wise sense of where his political interests lie. Gay activists are upset by how Kerry has “fudged the gay marriage issue” and pronounced him and others guilty of a “cowardly cop out” on the issue.
But the toughest criticism has come from Mickey Kaus, a self-professed Democrat who writes for the Internet site Slate.com. Kaus challenges anyone to name an issue on which Kerry has taken a “career-threatening risk.” He wonders why Kerry could show bravery in Vietnam, but “demonstrate so little of it in his political life.” Kaus thinks that Kerry was even unwilling to risk parting with his own medals. With friends like these, who needs enemies?