John Kerry, Mr. Insincerity

Posted: Mar 15, 2004 12:00 AM

John Kerry doesn't mean what he says. This statement doesn't represent a partisan attack on the Massachusetts senator. For his supporters, it's one of his most attractive qualities. Indeed, if it weren't for his insincerity, John Kerry would face a revolt among his liberal base and a political meltdown generally.

Consider: Liberals think that opposition to gay wedlock is bigoted and backward. John Kerry, who repeats his opposition to gay marriage whenever asked, has therefore outed himself as a kind of gay-basher. He joins Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the rest of the Christian right gang in seeking to deny gays their "civil rights." So, John Kerry must be a hateful fundamentalist merely posing as an intellectually condescending Boston Brahmin.

But wait. When Kerry says he opposes gay marriage, everyone -- especially his most fervid supporters -- knows he doesn't mean it. The primary legal obstacle to the spread of gay marriage around the country is the Defense of Marriage Act, which protects states from having to recognize marriages from other states. Kerry opposed it upon its passage in 1996. He seems inclined to accept the steady, court-imposed march of gay wedlock. This means Kerry is functionally in favor of gay marriage - he's just afraid to say so. Hurray for political cowardice!

Kerry promises to cut the deficit in half in five years. If you believe what he says about taxes -- he'll retain and even augment the Bush tax cuts on the middle class, and repeal only the tax cuts on the rich -- that means Kerry must implement stiff spending cuts to pay for his program. His health-care plan alone will cost $900 billion over 10 years, and his promised tax increase will only produce $250 billion. So there will be great budgetary pain in the Kerry administration, especially considering that Democrats have accused President Bush of drastic spending austerity when domestic discretionary spending has increased a whopping 40 percent over four years. But relax. Kerry doesn't mean it, either on the deficit or taxes, or maybe both.

Kerry voted to authorize the Iraq War. This was nearly disqualifying in a Democratic Party deeply opposed to the war. Kerry saved himself by convincing liberal primary voters that he didn't really mean his war-authorization vote, at least not in the sense it was commonly understood (i.e., authorizing Bush to go to war). Later, Kerry voted against $87 billion in funding for U.S. troops and reconstruction efforts in Iraq. His support for de-funding the U.S. operation would seem deeply irresponsible. Unless, of course, Kerry didn't really mean it.

Saying what you don't mean can, despite all its political benefits, be confusing. Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, then declared that he didn't really mean it during the Democratic primaries. Now, attacked by the Bush team for opposing the Patriot Act, Kerry objects that he didn't mean that either. Which position doesn't he mean more?

Who can know? It was once said of the famously contentious 17th-century Puritan rebel John Lilburne, "If the world were emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John, and John with Lilburne." If he were similarly left all alone on the field of political combat, John would quarrel with Kerry, and Kerry with John.

In the Senate, Kerry defended free trade for years. Lately, he has explained to protectionist Democratic voters that he didn't mean it. He advocates including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, a position that will make it difficult for the United States to forge future free-trade agreements. And he supports a crackdown on "outsourcing," also known as free trade in labor. If Kerry follows through, he will be the first U.S. president in 50 years to abandon the U.S. posture of pushing for more global economic openness. But maybe he hasn't meant what he has said in the course of explaining that he didn't mean what he used to say on trade.

Or maybe he's being sincere. That would be truly frightening.