New York, N.Y.–It has been one of the soft underbellies of the Kerry candidacy: He’s been in the Senate for 20 years, but few of his colleagues can remember him doing anything.
On a conference call with reporters, shortly before the Michigan Democratic primary, Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow endorsed Kerry. I asked them what single piece of legislation stands out as Kerry’s signature accomplishment in the U.S. Senate. Levin and Stabenow hemmed and hawed about how there were so many that it was hard to choose just one. When asked for a couple of examples, they gave it their best shot.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that we each put in bills and amendments, and they’re often wrapped into larger pieces of legislation,” Stabenow said. “I appreciated his comments and his fight for Medicare. He stood with us, spoke out against this legislation that passed recently that was so bad for seniors. [Presumably, she was referring to the legislation adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.] He has a passion for protecting natural resources, and preventing the drilling in Alaska and so on. He supported our legislation that would ban oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes. I could go through a whole range of things.”
“He’s been a real fighter in the areas of education and health care, frequently as part of a coalition,” Levin said. “Two more things–on minimum wage, he’s been a real fighter for increases on that. And another area is school modernization funds. He fought real hard for those schools. And he has been a staunch supporter for the tax incentives to make it possible for the automotive industry to produce these advanced technologies.”
As noble an effort as that was, the senators had to dance around a stark fact about Kerry’s legislative career: When John Kerry says, “I led the fight” on any particular issue, he usually means, “I gave a speech on the floor of the Senate.”
As FactCheck.org put it:
John Kerry is fond of saying “I led the fight” on a lot of things–against Arctic drilling, against Bush’s Medicare prescription drug legislation, for federal grants for 100,000 new police officers, against Newt Gingrich’s attempts to lessen environmental regulations.
But reporters who cover Congress often gave others credit for the leading roles in some of those fights–with scant mention of Kerry.
And the Associated Press last July found that only eight laws had Kerry as their lead sponsor, five of them “ceremonial,” two relating to the fishing industry, and one providing federal grants to support small businesses owned by women.
This is not a partisan interpretation. Howard Dean decided to whack this particular piñata in the January 29 Democratic primary debate in South Carolina:
Dean: Senator Kerry is the front-runner, and I mean him no insult, but in 19 years in the Senate, Senator Kerry sponsored nine–11 bills that had anything to do with health care, and not one of them passed.
Kerry: Well, one of the things that you need to know as a president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done. And one of the things that happens in Congress is, you can in fact write a bill, but if you’re smart about it, you can get your bill passed on someone else’s bill and it doesn’t carry your name.
Now, Kerry campaign strategists had to know this was a glaring weakness since they signed on, and the importance of this has been clear since he won the primary. (Mickey Kaus wrote on March 1, “Kerry has been a conspicuous non-performer in the legislation department.”
What is baffling is that despite pro forma argument in this area, the campaign has done surprisingly little to address this Achilles Heel of the candidate.
Pretend, for a moment, you’re a Kerry campaign strategist. (Consider this exercise to be valuable practice; at the current rate, Joe Lockhart may be calling you soon.) There are a couple of ways you could paper over the thin legislative record. You can substitute votes for leadership, and emphasize his past votes in favor of welfare reform. You can have him talk at length about his work with John McCain on a select committee investigating the whereabouts of missing soldiers in Southeast Asia. You can have Massachusetts’s senior senator, Ted Kennedy, whose status as a legislative leader no one would dispute, to talk at length about how vital Kerry has been in past Senate fights.
But the Kerry team didn’t do this. And as the Bush campaign observed, he discussed his Senate career for 26 seconds during his convention address.
And Zell Miller, the Republican party’s favorite Democrat, focused on this particular chink in Kerry’s armor, and just swung away with a sledgehammer:
Listing all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down sounds like an auctioneer selling off our national security but Americans need to know the facts.
The B-1 bomber, that Senator Kerry opposed, dropped 40% of the bombs in the first six months of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The B-2 bomber, that Senator Kerry opposed, delivered air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hussein’s command post in Iraq.
The F-14A Tomcats, that Senator Kerry opposed, shot down Khadafi’s Libyan MIGs over the Gulf of Sidra. The modernized F-14D, that Senator Kerry opposed, delivered missile strikes against Tora Bora.
The Apache helicopter, that Senator Kerry opposed, took out those Republican Guard tanks in Kuwait in the Gulf War. The F-15 Eagles, that Senator Kerry opposed, flew cover over our Nation’s Capital and this very city after 9/11.
I could go on and on and on: Against the Patriot Missile that shot down Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles over Israel, against the Aegis air-defense cruiser, against the Strategic Defense Initiative, against the Trident missile, against, against, against.
This is the man who wants to be the commander in-chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?
Campaign talk tells people who you want them to think you are. How you vote tells people who you really are deep inside.
Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations.
Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide.
John Kerry, who says he doesn’t like outsourcing, wants to outsource our national security.
That’s the most dangerous outsourcing of all. This politician wants to be leader of the free world.
Free for how long?
For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak, and more wobbly than any other national figure. As a war protestor, Kerry blamed our military.
As a Senator, he voted to weaken our military. And nothing shows that more sadly and more clearly than his vote this year to deny protective armor for our troops in harm’s way, far away.
A stronger defense of Kerry’s legislative record earlier in the campaign would have helped minimize the political damage.
With no senator elected president since Kerry’s idol, John F. Kennedy, we know it’s hard for a legislator to get a promotion to the Oval Office. If you’re going to make the jump to commander in chief without executive experience, you had better bring a solid record in the legislature.