The rapid rise of John Kerry’s Presidential campaign is causing grave concern in the Republican Party’s upper management. Although G.O.P. leaders denigrate him as a “Massachusetts liberal,” invoking doom-laden memories of Michael Dukakis, such glib chatter only provides a temporary relief from their worries.
If he wins the Democratic nomination, Mr. Kerry will pose certain challenges that aren’t so easily solved: He’s a decorated war veteran, a hunter and a politician who doesn’t hesitate to fight back when attacked. Those qualities distinguish him from the soft targets that Republicans enjoy hitting most.
Caustic assessments of the Senator’s personality and character began to leak out last year, only to subside when his prospects seemed to dim. Now emergency experiments in Kerry-bashing are again on the front burners, boiling up unwholesome little pots labeled Botox , French-looking , rich wife , special interests , Jane Fonda , high taxes and, of course, liberal , liberal and liberal .
The results to date aren’t impressive. In recent national polls, the lines marked “Kerry” and “Bush” have crossed-with the former rising and the latter descending. But bad news only inspires the inventive elves in the Republican war dungeon to more strenuous effort. Ed Gillespie, the former Enron lobbyist who serves as chairman of the Republican National Committee, is test-marketing their latest products.
Some are obvious duds. When Mr. Gillespie harks back to 1972 for evidence that Mr. Kerry is “weak” on defense, as he did in remarks the other day, he invites questions about what George W. Bush was doing in those days. (And what young Mr. Bush was supposed to do but didn’t, like showing up for duty in the Air National Guard.) As the Bush twins might say, let’s not go there.
Naturally, the Republicans will pay close attention to the Senator’s four-term voting record, which offers plenty of material for creative misinterpretation. The objective is to tarnish Mr. Kerry’s national-security credentials and place the nation on orange alert against his candidacy.
In that vein, the R.N.C. chairman has scolded Mr. Kerry for his alleged zeal to decimate the intelligence and defense budgets. He says that in 1994 and 1995, the Senator tried to slash intelligence funding by more than a billion dollars.
Why would the Massachusetts Senator, then serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, question the massive, classified intelligence budget? With colleagues from both parties, he was then seeking to recover a substantial amount that had been squirreled away during the previous five years by the National Reconnaissance Office-the highly secretive satellite-intelligence agency whose strange fiscal practices were a scandal in Washington.
On Sept. 29, 1995, Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chaired the intelligence committee, rose on the Senate floor to explain why he and other members were seeking an unusual amendment to the intelligence authorization bill. According to Mr. Specter, they were seeking “to address concerns about financial practices and management at the National Reconnaissance Office …. These amendments address an issue that the committee first identified in 1992 but which has received a good deal of press attention in the past several days and has raised questions about the National Reconnaissance Office’s financial management practices. It has been alleged that the NRO has accumulated more than $1 billion in unspent funds without informing the Pentagon, CIA, or Congress. It has been further alleged that this is one more example of how intelligence agencies sometimes use their secret status to avoid accountability.”
Vast sums have been spent on intelligence activities during the past two decades, but were they spent wisely or squandered? Such questions are even more pertinent now than when Mr. Kerry first began to ask them. More than 10 years ago, he demanded that higher budgets should include greater accountability.
“If intelligence is the valuable commodity that I contend it is in this very uncertain world, a world of new threats but from which the old nuclear threat has not completely faded, then it ought to be amply funded,” he said in 1993. With the end of the Cold War, defense budgets were declining, but Mr. Kerry argued that intelligence should be restructured rather than cut. He had investigated the Panamanian drug dictator Manuel Noriega and exposed the criminal Saudi bankers at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
In the Senate, Mr. Kerry wasn’t quite alone in questioning Pentagon waste. Every year, his close friend John McCain reads a list of the worst defense pork projects aloud on the Senate floor. Despite their differences on some issues, Mr. McCain has said he feels “unbounded respect and admiration” for his Massachusetts colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran-an endorsement that sounds more heartfelt than the Arizonan’s more formal backing of his old enemy, Mr. Bush.
No, Mr. Kerry isn’t an easy target or a simple caricature. He won’t sit in a tank wearing a helmet three sizes too big, either.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.