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No Room in 2004 for the ‘Kerry Rule’ on Political Records

Here’s the sequence of statements over Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) record that caused a political ruckus over the weekend.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.): “When you have a 32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems, folks in Georgia are going to look beyond what he says and look at his voting record.”

Kerry: “I will not sit back and allow my patriotism to be challenged.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Kerry spokesman: “The Republicans need to answer to the American people for their craven tactics that degrade our democracy and question the patriotism of those who stand up and ask questions about the direction of our country.”

Huh? Patriotism being challenged? Craven tactics? Did I miss something here? Apparently, there’s a new campaign regulation on the books for the 2004 election, and according to John Kerry, we’re all supposed to follow it. No, it’s not McCain-Feingold. It’s called the Kerry Rule, and it works like this.

Under the Kerry Rule, all questions concerning Kerry’s record are off limits. Any attempt to raise his voting record as an issue, especially on defense and national security, are by definition smear tactics.

In fact, crying “smear” is rapidly becoming the Kerry campaign’s response of choice when trying to deflect questions about the Kerry record on everything from his dubious honor as the Senate’s No. 1 recipient of special interest money over the past 15 years to his consistently weak voting record on national defense issues.

So, under the Kerry Rule, please, no questions about his support for the nuclear freeze or against the B-1 bomber, the B-2, the Patriot missile, the F-15, the Trident missile, the Apache helicopter, the Tomahawk missile, the M-1 Abrams tank, etc. You get the idea.

This remarkable exercise in political chutzpah would almost be funny were its target — an open and honest discussion of issues critical to the nation — not so serious. What is really going on here is a not-so-subtle attempt by Kerry to take his record of policy votes and statements as a U.S. Senator off the table as legitimate points of discussion in a presidential election.

Never before — whether it was Fritz Mondale or Bob Dole, Lyndon Johnson or Howard Baker — has a former or current Senator running for president run so hard away from his own record. There’s a strategic reason why Kerry finds himself in need of a creative general election strategy.

He has a record that makes him the ideological twin of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at a time when only 17 percent of voters identify themselves as liberals (according to Voter News Service 2002 exit polls). He knows that record is an albatross to his candidacy — an Achilles’ heel that could doom his presidential bid if it becomes part of the political debate.

We’ve seen other attempts by candidates to recast themselves as something other than what they are when their record or background or personality becomes a millstone. When Al Gore tried it, he simply changed from straight-laced suits to earth-toned Polo shirts and khakis. But Kerry isn’t changing the packaging; he’s trying to hide the substance by crying “smear” and reminding us of his service in Vietnam whenever his record is challenged.

The truth is no one is questioning Kerry’s love of country or his sacrifices in the past. What people are questioning, and legitimately so, are his views and votes on national security and other policies that are structurally wrong for the country.

John Kerry isn’t “anti-military.” It is his inability to understand a fundamental point about our national defense that is at issue: Had Kerry’s view on most of the country’s current weapons systems prevailed, it would have undermined the broad strategic military needs of this country. This argument has nothing to do with patriotism and everything to do with judgment.

With the nation engaged in a war on terror that could go on for years, Kerry’s record on defense issues ought to be a subject of debate and discussion.

So should his flips-flops on No Child Left Behind, the Gulf War and the Iraq war, and his views on Medicare reforms and economic/tax policies. These are the issues that will determine the outcome of the 2004 election.

The American people deserve a full and fair examination of the views, the policies and the records of both President Bush and Senator Kerry. The Kerry Rule should be ruled out of order.

Postscript: On Sunday, Ralph Nader got into the presidential sweepstakes as an independent, enraging Democratic leaders and the Kerry campaign. Most analysts have focused on whether Nader will have the votegetting impact he had in 2000. His entrance into the race actually poses another, more subtle problem for Kerry. Nader’s positioning as the candidate of the Left will force Kerry to remain ideologically farther from the middle where elections are won and lost.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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