After John Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee for president, the Republican National Committee (RNC) began criticizing his record on military spending. The campaign against Kerry’s record escalated on February 22 when the RNC released a list of weapons systems that Kerry allegedly “voted against.”
Republican spokespeople used this list to make sweeping claims about Kerry in the media: “I think the more that the president and the Republicans describe accurately– they don’t have to exaggerate at all; they just have to describe accurately and calmly– what it means…to have voted against every major weapon system,” Newt Gingrich declared on Fox‘s Hannity and Colmes (2/26/04), “I think if they stick to that and stick to the facts, Senator Kerry will react by saying that he’s being smeared by his own record.”
Partisan TV pundits like Sean Hannity quickly echoed these charges: “He’s voting against every major weapons system we now use in our military,” Hannity told his Fox News audience (3/1/04). Hannity’s participation in the RNC’s attack was perhaps to be expected, but he was not the only media figure to simply pass on the Republican allegations without examination. CNN anchor Judy Woodruff (2/25/04) framed the issue this way in an interview with Rep. Norm Dicks (D.-Wash.): “The Republicans list something like 13 different weapons systems that they say the record shows Senator Kerry voted against. The Patriot missile, the B-1 bomber, the Trident missile and on and on and on.”
Embarrassingly, Dicks had to explain to Woodruff that most of the weapons “votes” weren’t individual votes at all, but a single vote on the Pentagon’s 1991 appropriations bill. Woodruff responded with surprise to this information: “Are you saying that all these weapons systems were part of one defense appropriations bill in 1991?”
But Woodruff wasn’t alone. Appearing on CNN (2/3/04), Bush-Cheney campaign strategist Ralph Reed explained to anchor Wolf Blitzer that Kerry’s record was one of
Blitzer responded by pointing out to guest Ann Lewis of the Democratic National Committee, “I think it’s fair to say, Ann, that there’s been some opposition research done.”
For many reporters, the charges against Kerry’s record were recorded as just part of the back-and-forth of a campaign: Fox News Channel‘s Carl Cameron (2/27/04) explained: “With the GOP attacking John Kerry’s votes to cut defense over the years, the Democratic front-runner, once again, counter-attacked what he calls the president’s ‘mishandling’ of the war on terror.”
Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler (2/27/04) noted that
NBC anchor Tom Brokaw (3/2/04, MSNBC) also seemed to accept the charges at face value, noticing that
the vice president just today was talking about his votes against the CIA budget, for example, intelligence budgets and also weapons systems. Isn’t he [Kerry] going to be very vulnerable come the fall when national security is such a big issue in this country?
One of the few reporters to take a serious look at the RNC’s list– on which 10 of the 13 items refer to the single 1991 vote– was Slate‘s Fred Kaplan (2/25/04). Kaplan noted that 16 senators, including five Republicans, voted against the bill. Kaplan concluded that the claim against Kerry “reeks of rank dishonesty.”
Kaplan also pointed out that at the time of the 1991 vote, deeper cuts in military spending were being advocated by some prominent Republicans– including then-President George H.W Bush and Dick Cheney, who was secretary of defense at the time. As Kaplan noted, Cheney appealed for more cuts from Congress: “You’ve squabbled and sometimes bickered and horse-traded and ended up forcing me to spend money on weapons that don’t fill a vital need in these times of tight budgets and new requirements.”
Cheney went to name the M-1 tank and the F-14 and F-16 fighters– all of which appear on the RNC’s list– as “great systems” that “we have enough of.”
Ironically, Cheney made the rounds on the cable channels on March 2, criticizing Kerry’s record in terms parallel to the RNC’s release. During an interview with Fox News Channel‘s Brit Hume, Cheney said:
Unfortunately, Hume failed to raise an important follow-up: Why was Cheney now criticizing Kerry for having essentially the same position Cheney advocated back in 1991?
The Bush/Cheney campaign plans to spend $133 million over the next several months in an effort to “redefine” Kerry (Sydney Morning Herald, 3/4/04). If this charge is an indication of the Republicans’ approach, then the media would perform a valuable service if they took a keen interest in evaluating the accuracy of such campaign rhetoric.