Kerry’s Defense Votes

Fred Kaplan has an interesting piece in Slate today that seems to refute many of the claims made about Kerry’s voting record on defense issues in the Senate.

Looking at the weapons that the RNC says Kerry voted to cut, a good case could be made, certainly at the time, that some of them (the B-2 bomber and President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile-defense program) should have been cut. As for the others (the M-1 tank and the F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighter planes, among others), Kerry didn’t really vote to cut them.

The claim about these votes was made in the Republican National Committee “Research Briefing” of Feb. 22. The report lists 13 weapons systems that Kerry voted to cut—the ones cited above, as well as Patriot air-defense missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and AH64 Apache helicopters, among others.

It is instructive, however, to look at the footnotes. Almost all of them cite Kerry’s vote on Senate bill S. 3189 (CQ Vote No. 273) on Oct. 15, 1990. Do a Google search, and you will learn that S. 3189 was the Fiscal Year 1991 Defense Appropriations Act, and CQ Vote No. 273 was a vote on the entire bill. There was no vote on those weapons systems specifically. [But, then, there never are. That’s not how it works. -ed.]


In other words, Kerry was one of 16 senators (including five Republicans) to vote against a defense appropriations bill 14 years ago. He was also one of an unspecified number of senators to vote against a conference report on a defense bill nine years ago. The RNC takes these facts and extrapolates from them that he voted against a dozen weapons systems that were in those bills. The Republicans could have claimed, with equal logic, that Kerry voted to abolish the entire U.S. armed forces, but that might have raised suspicions. Claiming that he opposed a list of specific weapons systems has an air of plausibility. On close examination, though, it reeks of rank dishonesty.

Kaplan also makes a case that Kerry’s votes against the B-2 bomber were reasonable in context and that Kerry indeed voted against several cuts in defense in recent years.

It’ll be quite interesting to see how this plays out. I know that I’ve read/heard that Kerry voted against the M-1 and several other key programs of the early 1980s. I’m now curious about the context of those votes, since he was, famously, Mike Dukakis’ lieutenant governor, until 1985.

Cherry picking the legislative record of candidates for higher office to find incriminating–and misleading–votes is hardly new. Indeed, my guess is most of the time the opposition researchers don’t even bother to discern the context. One advantage of a long campaign cycle is the ability to sort most of this sort of thing out.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mike says:

    The following thread at Free Republic:

    has an image of a document from 1984 by John Kerry proposing eliminating from the budget all sorts of weapons programs and blasting Reagan’s defense plans. The document indicates he would have cancelled that year’s purchases of the AH-64, the F-15, the F-14, the MX missile, Aegis-class cruisers, and others.

    With amendments and different versions of bills it can be easy to cherrypick a certain vote to distort someone’s record. And of course some of those weapons systems were in the middle of their procurement cycles, so one year of spending wouldn’t have eliminated them completely.

    But the document looks genuine to me, and its content fits in with the constant Democratic attacks on Reagan’s defense budgets of the time. The document, in fact, has a similar argument to Kerry’s criticisms of Bush today – the danger is overblown (Iraq now, the USSR then), lies were told to scare people (WMDs now, the “window of vulnerability” then), we’re less safe than we were before, etc.

    It’s really quite remarkable when you think about it – the Democratic playbook just doesn’t change much.

    So I think there’s plenty of material for Bush to work with, despite what Kaplan may say.

  2. James Joyner says:


    Interesting. I’d prefer a source more credible than Free Republic but the substance of that poorly copied announcement looks plausible enough.

    Assuming it’s representative, he was likely right on DIVAD and MX. Kaplan claims he actually voted to fund SDI if not fully.

    As I say, the details of this should emerge over time. I suspect there’s plenty of fodder for the general election campaign, but that it’s not quite as one-sided as we’d been led to believe.

  3. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    Regardless of the complete truth of the Republican accusations or of Kaplan’s rebuttal, this points up something that seems obvious to me, but politicians and their party henchmen clearly disagree with me: making stuff up to attack your opponent undermines your true case. It’s stinks of desperation. What, you don’t have enough real facts and plans to get people to vote for you?


  4. Mike says:

    James, I agree that having documents from a Kerry campaign or his Senate office in hand would be the best thing.

    But to me, as I read the document again as I posted my comment last night, it wasn’t the individual programs Kerry listed (DIVAD was a dog and it got cancelled without Kerry’s help) but the tone of the document.

    It hit me that he just didn’t like any aspect of what Reagan was doing. We were the ones in the wrong – wasteful spending that would destabilize the world.

    Well, we know what happened – and Kerry was wrong then. And now he’s making essentially the same arguments on the WOT. Although it’s a different foe and a different war, the goodness of our cause and the necessity of our actions are just as strong now as they were against the Soviets. Therefore, Kerry is wrong again.

    Bush doesn’t have to go into detail about which year Kerry voted against B-1 funding to make that case.