In an interview several weeks before he voted against $87 billion in funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., seemed to argue that such a vote would be reckless, irresponsible, and tantamount to abandoning U.S. troops.
On the Sept. 14, 2003, edition of CBS's Face the Nation, Kerry spoke at length about an amendment he and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., were offering which would have paid for the $87 billion by delaying some of the recent tax cuts.
Asked if he would vote against the $87 billion if his amendment did not pass, Kerry said, "I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running. That's irresponsible."
Kerry argued that his amendment offered a way to do it properly, "but I don't think anyone in the Congress is going to not give our troops ammunition, not give our troops the ability to be able to defend themselves. We're not going to cut and run and not do the job."
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said her boss' vote against the funding was a "protest vote."
At the time of the October 2003 vote, "The nation had four months before funds were needed but Republicans were hell-bent on moving this bill through as quickly as possible, before the tough questions could be asked and the president's failures would be discovered," Cutter said.
Cutter went on to say the Bush White House had threatened to veto the entire $87 billion supplemental bill if the Kerry-Biden amendment had passed.
Political observers wondered, however, how effective Kerry's explanation would be.
"John Kerry has years and years of public statements — including recent ones — that the Republicans seem to have more thoroughly catalogued and at-the-ready than the Kerry campaign does," observed ABC News political director Mark Halperin.
The $87 Billion Issue
At the time of the CBS interview, Kerry was facing a strong challenge in the Democratic presidential contest at the time from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — who rose in polls partly because of his strong stance against the Iraq war.
When the matter finally came up for a vote on October 17, it passed the House by a vote of 303-125, and the Senate by 87 to 12.
Kerry was one of the 12 who voted against the funding. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., also voted against the funding. Dean at the time seemed to support the Kerry approach, saying "if the president doesn't have a sufficient commitment to this operation to get rid of the $87 billion in tax cuts then we should vote no."
But Senate Democrats overwhelmingly took the other side of the issue. Biden, the co-sponsor of Kerry's amendment and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, voted for the funding, saying, "the cost of failure in Iraq would far exceed the price of peace." In a Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who also voted for the funding, said, "I don't know how John Kerry and John Edwards can say they supported the war but then opposed the funding for the troops who went to fight the war that the resolution that they supported authorized."
In the last few days, as the presidential race has heated up, President George W. Bush's re-election campaign has put Kerry on the defensive over the issue of the $87 billion, running a TV ad in West Virginia saying that "few votes in Congress are as important as funding our troops at war" and while Kerry voted to authorize war against Iraq, he "voted against funding our soldiers" as well as "body armor for troops in combat," "higher combat pay," and "better health care for reservists and their families."
When Kerry was asked about the ad, he sought to explain his amendment and uttered a line Republican strategists believe sums up what they see as Kerry's propensity to flip-flop and straddle: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," Kerry said on Tuesday. The TV ad was re-cut with the Kerry line inserted, and released nationally.
Republican strategists said that the Face the Nation clip from last September may similarly end up being used to benefit the Bush campaign.
Not surprisingly, Republicans expressed shock at the Face the Nation transcript; Bush-Cheney campaign spokesperson Terry Holt called the quote "stunning."
"'I don't think any United States senator should abandon the troops'?" Holt asked, quoting Kerry. "That is exactly what he voted to do." He called the quote "another example of John Kerry living in a parallel universe where he thinks he can take two mutually exclusive positions on one issue. I would love for these two Kerrys to meet some day."
"John Kerry's own words seem to be making the most powerful case about his own vote against funding our troops," said Jim Dyke, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which is exploring ways to get the Face the Nation clip out to the public.
Stephanie Cutter says John Kerry has, "fought in a war and understands the importance of shared sacrifices when our troops are risking their lives overseas." She says that's why Kerry "has tried to repeal the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans to pay for the supplemental funds."
The Kerry spokeswoman went on to say, "If the president and his Republican attack machine were serious about protecting our troops they wouldn't have invaded Iraq under false pretenses without our allies or without a plan to win the peace. And they wouldn't have sent the troops into battle without the equipment they needed in the first place."
In the interview, Kerry never clearly stated whether he would or would not vote for the $87 billion funding bill, a fact that may offer him some sort of exculpation. But one of the few press outlets to cover his remarks on the subject, the Washington Times, wrote the next day that "Mr. Kerry said he would still vote to authorize the $87 billion. Not doing so, he said, would be 'irresponsible.'"
Conducting the interview on CBS, Los Angeles Times D.C. bureau chief Doyle McManus asked Kerry, if his amendment "does not pass, will you then vote against the $87 billion?"
Kerry's full response is as follows: "I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to — to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running," he says. "That's irresponsible. What is responsible is for the administration to do this properly now."
Kerry says he is "laying out the way in which the administration could unite the American people, could bring other countries to the table, and I think could give the American people a sense that they're on the right track. There's a way to do this properly."
"But I don't think anyone in the Congress is going to not give our troops ammunition, not give our troops the ability to be able to defend themselves," he says. "We're not going to cut and run and not do the job."
"Look, we could — we could do this job over a period of time at greater loss, at greater risk, and with much loss around the world with respect to the United States," Kerry concludes. "The question is will we do this the best way possible so that we do the best to protect our troops and the best to advance the safety and security of the United States?"
Vacationing in Idaho today, Kerry issued a statement commemorating the one-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. "Before the war started, I repeatedly called on the President to build a genuine coalition to reduce the military and financial burden on the United States, to go to war only as a last resort, and to have a plan to win the peace," he said. "I voted to give him the authority to go to war only when he promised me and other members in Congress that he would do these things. He broke those promises." He criticized the president, saying it was time for Mr. Bush "to take the target's [sic] off the backs of U.S. soldiers, reduce the burden on America's taxpayers, and finish the job in Iraq."