- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

Two decades of votes cast by Sen. John Kerry to cut military and intelligence spending could make him vulnerable to charges of being soft on defense in the 2004 presidential election, say some top political and defense analysts.

The liberal Massachusetts senator, who supported deep budget cuts in weapons programs and in the Central Intelligence Agency throughout the 1990s, has said he is girding himself for a barrage of campaign attacks against his record on national security issues. And President Bush already has begun to zero in aggressively on that record, charging that “Senator Kerry’s been in Washington long enough to take both sides of just about every issue.”

“My opponent says he approves of bold action in the world but only if other countries don’t object,” the president said last week in a string of campaign speeches.

But Mr. Bush and the Republicans are not the only ones questioning Mr. Kerry’s Senate votes on military matters. Political and defense analysts also say that Mr. Kerry’s anti-defense spending record could become one of his strategic weaknesses as the Democratic presidential nominee running in an age of terrorism.

“I do think he is vulnerable on it. When you move into a general election situation, twice as many people think they are conservative than think they are liberal. You can’t play by the same game by which you win the Democratic nomination. You’ve got to move toward the center,” said Stephen Hess, a political and policy analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution.

“It’s pretty well established that he was more or less automatically against increasing defense spending on particular programs, although he was not alone in that. He was not someone who was going to be in favor of more defense spending,” said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a national security scholar at Brookings.

“In the minds of some people, it may have some impact. It depends on what happens in Iraq, the war on terrorism and related issues. At that point, the question of what he did with regard to these military issues may have traction with the public,” Mr. Sonnenfeldt said.

Brookings long has been considered the Democrats’ shadow government-in-waiting, and many of its top policy analysts were strong supporters of former governor Howard Dean before his antiwar candidacy imploded in the early presidential primaries. But even among Mr. Kerry’s supporters at the think tank, there are surprising criticisms of the positions he has taken on Iraq and the decision on when to go to war.

Michael O’Hanlon, a prominent national security adviser at Brookings, believes that overall, Mr. Kerry “is very strong on national security,” but he says that the senator’s past votes to slash the CIA’s budget “are probably not his strongest.”

“A lot of people got that wrong in the 1990s. Many of us who supported intelligence cuts in the 1990s may have gone too far,” in light of the subsequent need for stronger intelligence in the war on terrorism, Mr. O’Hanlon said.

He also questions one of the central criticisms that Mr. Kerry has leveled against the president’s decision to go to war to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime — calling it “a rush to war.”

“I do think that any Democrat who says that the president needed to be more patient should explain when patience should have run out,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. He characterized Mr. Kerry’s revised campaign position as “I want to be tough on Saddam Hussein but just not yet.”

“Any Democrat who says that Bush rushed to war needs to say specifically how much we should have waited and what bench marks he would have used to decide when we go to war,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “These are questions he has to answer.”

One of Mr. Kerry’s sharpest Democratic critics in the presidential campaign leading up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries was Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman who said that his Senate colleague was “ambivalent” about going to war in Iraq.

“No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war was a test of that,” Mr. Lieberman said in a campaign debate in Columbia, S.C., last year. “How can we win this election if we send a message of weakness on defense and security after September 11, 2001, to the American people?” he asked.

Kerry supporters say he will be able to rebut Mr. Bush’s attacks on his national security votes by showing that he has revised his views on defense issues in recent years, as when he voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002 and for missile defense.

“This is a guy who, when circumstances changed, is willing to say he changed his mind,” Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said.

Mr. Kerry’s career-long voting record on defense “isn’t going to win him any votes among the people who say national security is among the top two or three issues,” pollster John Zogby said. “But it’s not going to really lose him any votes, either, because being a liberal and going back to being a longhaired anti-war guy, his voting record is actually going to be a plus for him” in the states that Al Gore carried last year.

Even so, Mr. Zogby said, “If the president is able to define the campaign on national security and paint Kerry as a threat or weak on national security, then that will be to the president’s benefit. On the other hand, there are variables like the economy and health care.”

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