By John Isaacs and David Cohen
A recent article in Politico entitled “Bob Kerrey bid causes left to lash out” quotes a number of progressive leaders harshly criticizing former Senator Kerrey following his announcement of his candidacy for Senate in Nebraska.
This criticism does not fit the Bob Kerrey we have known from his twelve years of service in the Senate.
In 1999, Kerrey stunned the Pentagon, the Senate and the Clinton Administration when he offered an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that would have permitted a unilateral reduction of 3,500 U.S. strategic nuclear weapons without waiting for Russian ratification of the START II nuclear reductions agreement. Even more surprising was his ability to win 44 votes for his amendment, a clear sign that his colleagues held him in great respect.
This action was typical of Bob Kerrey. Bold. Creative. Independent. Iconoclastic. And a fine Senator who represented Nebraska vigorously and recognized that he owed his constituents his best judgment.
When serving in the Senate, Kerrey repeatedly offered dramatic initiatives to reduce nuclear arsenals Kerrey proposed that all nuclear warheads to be eliminated should be taken off “hair-trigger alert status.” Nuclear missiles were (and still are) kept on high alert so that they could be fired in only a few minutes, dramatically raising the odds of a deadly miscalculation. Here is a Senator who believed in prudence and avoiding policies that could lead to a careless disaster.
He supported congressional efforts to end U.S. nuclear testing in 1992 over the objections of the Bush Administration and prodded the Clinton Administration to negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
A strong opponent of landmines, Kerrey called for a worldwide ban and pushed – unsuccessfully — the Clinton Administration to adhere to the international agreement against them. He supported ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and payment of the full U.S. debt to the United Nations.
That is the Bob Kerry we know. Not the right-wing caricature that some of the left have tried to create.
In the Politico article, one leader claimed: “Bob Kerrey equals Joe Lieberman in our minds.”
Joe Lieberman was a cheerleader for war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and parts unknown. Now he is undermining diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
To paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, we know Joe Lieberman and Bob Kerrey is no Joe Lieberman.
Bob Kerrey, his identity forged in the bitter Vietnam War, the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor after losing his right leg below the knee in a horrific battle, would be one legislator who knows the smell of battle and death. That makes him prudent and responsible and not a wager of holy war.
One progressive quoted in the article accused him of voting for the war in Iraq. That would have been tough, as the vote occurred in 2002 when Kerrey was no longer in the Senate.
If the accuser meant the first Gulf war in 1991, wrong again, Kerry voted against the resolution to use force.
Did we agree with Kerry 100% of the time? Of course not. Some of his votes and positions drove us crazy, including his support for national missile defense. Such disagreement is inevitable with independent thinkers who become politicians.
But as Barney Frank once famously said, the only politician he agreed with 100 percent of the time was himself the first time he ran for the House of Representatives. By the second time he ran, he no longer could say that.
But what about domestic issues? Was Kerrey a dove on foreign policy and a conservative on domestic issues?
Check out the Americans for Democratic Action voting record for Kerrey’s last three years in the Senate: 95%, 100%, 85%, or in 1998, his 100% from League of Conservation Voters; 86% from ACLU, 0% from American Conservative Union.
One spokesperson said: “We aren’t looking for anyone to replicate Ben Nelson in Nebraska.”
Well good, because Bob Kerry is not Ben Nelson and Ben Nelson is not Bob Kerrey.
Sure, Kerrey voted for NAFTA, but that was a Bill Clinton initiative.
Sure, he called for taking into account the costs of entitlements while keeping the social safety net from tattering; he is not the only Democrat to have ever done so. But he opposed the Clinton Administration’s welfare cuts.
He championed the first amendment by opposing the flag burning constitutional amendment, clearly not a popular position.
He opposed banning gay marriage when it was not cool.
And the list goes on and on.
One more point. Sen. Olympia Snowe dropped her re-election bid because of tea party purists on the right who have no tolerance of disagreement.
South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint (R) has said that he would rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters.
Indeed, Republicans might be in control of the Senate today had not the party nominated ideologically pure but unelectable candidates in a number of states.
Democrats should resist such purity tests.
Our domestic needs are too great and the prevention of war is too important to pursue a policy of excommunication.
States like California, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington can elect people that reflect their historic liberal history.
But Senators from Montana, Colorado, Missouri and great swaths of the country have to reflect a far more conservative tradition. They constantly must balance their decisions if they want to win elections.
Kerrey always represented Nebraska as he thought about what’s good for the United States.
Reading Bob Kerrey out of the Democratic Party for perceived (if occasionally incorrect) transgressions may make people feel good but it is a great way to guarantee being in the perpetual minority.
John Isaacs is executive director of Council for a Livable World and has been involved in national security issues since the 1970’s. David Cohen is a board member of the Council and has been involved in the same issues since the 1960’s.