Commentary

John Kerry the (Im)moderate

This article originally appeared on Nationalreview.com on May 18, 2004.
Walter Cronkite has some advice for John Kerry. Be honest. Run for president as a liberal Democrat. Fly the liberal flag proudly and pose as the heir to the legacy of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. Cronkite’s advice is a variant of a common liberal argument: If only we would stand up and fight the right wing, we would start winning elections again.

Put Kerry in the camp of the skeptics. In early March, as his grip on the Democratic nomination grew more secure, Kerry began to run from the “liberal” label. National Journal, among others, noted Kerry had one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate — a “laughable characterization,” according to the senator. Over the last month Kerry’s trot toward the center has become a sprint.

During the primaries Kerry had denounced “Benedict Arnold C.E.O.s” for outsourcing jobs. Now he says “the private sector is the engine of economic growth.” Government, Kerry clarifies, should not be a “burden to business” but rather, help them succeed. He has even promised to “reduce the size of government from what it is today.” Shades of “the era of big government is over.”

He cites his vote for welfare reform in 1996 and a proposed “contract with the middle class.” His health plan supposedly uses market incentives to help small businesses. Kerry even tried to have his own Sister Souljah moment with the teachers’ union. In exchange for $30 billion of across-the-board pay raises, the teachers would agree to speedier dismissals of the incompetent in their ranks.

In other words, the 80 percent of Americans who do not define themselves as liberals should “fear not,” says Kerry: “I am not a redistributionist Democrat,” but rather, “an entrepreneurial Democrat.”

The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks. His planned spending on education and health care will be funded by tax increases for the most affluent Americans. That’s just old-fashioned Democratic resentment combined with redistribution. The teachers’ unions applauded his plans for redistributing wealth to their members and showed little concern about incompetents being fired because they know that in the end Kerry will throw money at teachers with no strings attached. On entitlements, Kerry is positively antediluvian. He has promised to oppose all efforts to change Social Security to allow individual ownership of real assets. “I will never privatize Social Security,” Kerry declared. “Never, never, never.”

Kerry can hardly run from his record. Americans for Democratic Action rates congressional voting records on a scale of 0 to 100. The higher the score, the more liberal the member of Congress. According to political scientist William Mayer, Kerry has an average ADA score of 92, a rating similar to the scores of Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, and Patrick Leahy. In fact, among all the senators who served from 1972 to 1999, 90 percent had a more conservative ADA score than Kerry’s average. If Kerry is not a liberal, he has recently changed his views.

What Kerry does tells us more than what he says about his liberalism. Kerry’s message will be shaped by Bob Shrum, the author of Al Gore’s “people vs. the powerful” theme, and long a man of the hard Left. His campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, is an ally of Ted Kennedy along with his communications director, Stephanie Cutter. Kennedy himself influences Kerry’s thinking on the issues. If Kerry has left liberalism behind, why is his campaign led by people longing to return to 1965?

Much is now made of Kerry’s similarity to Bill Clinton, the New Democrat who moved the party (for a while) to the center. Kerry is following Clinton’s example. Most people forget that Clinton ran as a moderate in 1992 and immediately tried to govern as a liberal in 1993 by raising taxes and by trying to collectivize the provision of health care. He became more moderate after 1994 by force of circumstances, not by ideological choice. Even then, he initially vetoed the welfare reform bill now cited as part of his moderate legacy. Like Clinton, John Kerry hopes to obscure his ideological commitments until after his inauguration and then govern from the left.

Instead of the bait-and-switch, Kerry should follow Cronkite’s advice. He should embrace rather than reject the liberal label. The American electorate deserve truth-in-packaging in their presidential candidates, and, whatever his fate, Kerry will be fondly recalled as a man of conviction. If Kerry continues to deny his own beliefs, he will appear to be a man willing to do anything to gain the presidency. Of course, that’s a laughable characterization. Isn’t it?

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Democracy at the Cato Institute.