When Kerry Was Liberal

The Bush campaign and its conservative patrons want you to know: John Kerry is the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. More liberal than Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, the Generation GOP website crows. The Democrats couldn't have picked a more leftwing presidential candidate if they'd nominated Dennis Kucinich, the Washington Times reports.

What's going on here?

The "most liberal" label comes from a credible source: the National Journal, bible of Beltway wonks. Guided by contributing editor and CNN commentator William Schneider, the National Journal has been using the same complicated, computerized process to rank "conservative" and "liberal" members of Congress since 1981.

But if Kerry is so liberal, why did Kucinich, Howard Dean, and even John Edwards attract more support from labor, peace activists, and other groups traditionally associated with the left? Why did Democratic Party leaders applaud when these "unelectable" progressives gave way to the more mainstream, moderate Kerry?

Using a different ranking system, the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action put Kerry at number twenty-five among Senate liberals in 2003. (Ted Kennedy ranked number five.) Nor does Kerry make the ADA's lifetime top-ten list of Senate liberals, headed by the late Paul Wellstone at number one.

Jeff Blodgett runs Wellstone Action, a group that trains political organizers and promotes progressive politics.

"Paul saw himself as part of a movement, connected to organizations around the country," Blodgett says. Wellstone proposed legislation that he knew would not pass, like a single-payer health insurance bill "just because he thought it should be part of the debate." More than anything he saw himself as an activist and a "voice for the voiceless," Blodgett says.

The same can hardly be said of John Kerry. He endorsed the idea of campaign finance reform but spent heavily to drive away potential opponents in his reelection campaigns. And he annoyed progressives in Massachusetts with his opposition to single-payer health care and his unenthusiastic support for raising the minimum wage--a major cause of his colleague Ted Kennedy. Kerry also supported the welfare reform bill that did away with Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- a vote that more than anything divided the Wellstone liberals from the Clinton New Democrats.

A couple of things to know about the National Journal rankings: Kerry rated number one last year for the first time in more than a decade. Not coincidentally, 2003 was also the year he missed thirty-seven of the sixty-two votes tallied in the ranking process because he was out on the campaign trail.

What was not included in the National Journal rankings is at least as important as what was. The Journal looks at votes cast by Senators and Representatives in three areas: economic, social, and foreign policy. Kerry missed all the 2003 votes in two of the three categories. So his ranking is based entirely on economic policy. Trade, an area where Kerry has always been at odds with the Democratic base, barely showed up on the radar screen. Some of the most significant votes he cast on the issue -- for NAFTA, Fast Track, and normal trade relations with China -- did not take place in 2003. On the most important trade votes in 2003, such as dropping trade barriers with Africa and the Caribbean, and free trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, Kerry was a no-show.

Kerry isn't the only one whose record seems distorted in the National Journal. Some of the most conservative members of Congress found themselves rated as moderates because of their votes opposing the President's Medicare plan, supplemental appropriations for the reconstruction of Iraq, and the drug war in South America, all of which they viewed as wasteful government spending. Representative Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, a proud rightwinger who was rated among the moderates in 2003, told the National Journal it should change its ratings system.

It is undeniable that over the course of his lifetime, Kerry has racked up a liberal voting record. That record is reflected in his lifetime National Journal ranking of ninety-two out of 100 points -- higher than the formerly pro-life Kucinich. But that's largely because Kerry was a liberal -- during his first term. The previous time he was among the most liberal Senators, according to the Journal, was in 1990.

In a cover story entitled "What's Right with Kerry," in The Nation, David Corn recently declared "what distinguishes Kerry's career are key moments when he displayed guts and took tough actions that few colleagues would imitate."

Those moments, which Corn catalogues, mostly took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Iran-Contra hearings, inquiries into the Reagan Administration's coddling of drug dealers, and the BCCI investigation that linked members of both parties to a bank supporting a network of criminals and terrorists. One of his last courageous stands was in 1996, when he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which even Wellstone voted for.

But if the old John Kerry scored a lot of liberal points, the new John Kerry, the National Journal points out, was "especially moderate in his second term when it came to foreign policy issues." He voted for missile defense and intelligence spending legislation opposed by his Democratic colleagues. As Kerry likes to brag on the campaign trail, he endorsed sixteen out of nineteen military budget increases during his time in the Senate. Kerry's pro-military record is particularly galling to one of his constituents, John Bonifaz, the founder and director of the National Voting Rights Institute. Bonifaz even explored running against Kerry from the left in 2001, but decided not to when September 11 eclipsed his platform of economic and social justice.

Bonifaz was a young campaign staffer for Ted Kennedy in 1988. "I was not of the view that no one in the U.S. Senate was carrying the torch for progressive fights. There were some people, Senator Kennedy being one, Paul Wellstone being one." But Kerry, in Bonifaz's view, was no ally of progressives. His biggest beef with Kerry now is his support of the principle that Bush did not have to consult Congress again before invading Iraq -- the subject of a lawsuit Bonifaz is pressing against the Administration.

Like most liberals and progressives, Bonifaz wants to see Kerry beat Bush. That raises the question: Why criticize him now?

"For starters, I'd like to see a debate at the Democratic National Convention on where the party stands about the process of going into war," he says. "Does the party embrace the [idea that] presidents have inherent authority to invade other countries on their own volition, or does it embrace the view of the framers of the Constitution?"

Initially, Kerry explained his vote on the Iraq resolution by saying that the President had promised he'd go to war only with U.N. approval.

"Kerry made his own promise in a floor speech," says Bonifaz. "If the President didn't proceed to build a multilateral coalition, he'd be the first to speak out. He did not."

Instead, Bonifaz says, he stood by as the Administration blew off the international community and now endorses Bush on the war powers question.

Beyond that, says Bonifaz, a lot of people want to see a challenge to corporate politics. "That mobilized a lot of people behind Dean," he says. "Will Kerry embrace that message, or will he move to the center and right?"

If he keeps on the way he has been going, 2004 may be the year Kerry finally loses the liberal label.

Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.

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