JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Sen. John Kerry set his jaw, and even sighed at one point, as he confronted anew the confusion over his stand on the Iraq war, a fog that has enveloped his candidacy for months.
"I have one position on Iraq," Kerry insisted this week during a rare news conference. "One position."
In fact, he's right, his image as a "flip-flopper" notwithstanding.
Kerry voted in October 2002 for the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to go to war in Iraq. He now says that the invasion was not justified and has made the United States less secure.
These positions are not contradictory, but his attempts to explain the distinction between them are often complicated, and they have given President Bush an opening to caricature Kerry as a flip-flopper. However, beneath the torrent of campaign verbiage, Kerry's position on Iraq for the past two years has been consistent and defensible—just difficult to sell in a sound-bite world.
Kerry always called for a broad international coalition to confront Saddam Hussein, and going to war only as a last resort. Like most senators, he thought Bush needed the authority—it passed the Senate 77-23, and Kerry was one of 29 Democrats who supported it.
But once Bush got the authority, Kerry believes, he misused it.
In his Tuesday news conference, where 10 out of 11 questions probed his position on Iraq, Kerry said that he voted to authorize Bush to go to war if necessary in order to present a united U.S. front to the world and thus strengthen Bush's hand.
It was only one year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The president was challenging the United Nations to support him in confronting Saddam, whom Bush painted as a clear and present danger to the world. He told Congress that the best hope of avoiding war was to stand strong and united, first at home, then together with the United Nations in backing Saddam down.
"The vote for authorization is interpreted by a lot of people as a vote to go to war," Kerry said Tuesday. "But if you read it, and if you think about what it gave the president, it gave the president what he said: America will speak with one voice ... It was not a vote to go that day. It was a vote to go through the process of going to the U.N., building the allies and then making a judgment of whether we had to go."
It is clear from Kerry's remarks during the 2002 Senate debate that he did not consider the resolution a declaration of war.
"Let there be no doubt or confusion about where we stand on this. I will support a multilateral effort to disarm (Saddam) by force, if we ever exhaust ... other options," Kerry said in debate.
Then as now, he urged Bush to work with the United Nations.
"If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community," Kerry said.
In fact, Bush promised at the time to build a broad coalition and go slow.
In an Oct. 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, just four days before the Senate vote, the president pledged to exhaust other options and said that war was "not inevitable." He urged Congress to pass the resolution to give him leverage.
Republicans scoff at Kerry's distinction. They say Kerry surely knew that Saddam was unlikely to yield.
"He voted for it," said Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. "Look at the coverage at the time. It was pretty clear what was going on."
Kerry drew groans from Democrats on Aug. 9 when he remained consistent to his stand in offhand remarks to reporters at the Grand Canyon. Responding to a mocking question from Bush, Kerry said that even if he had known in October 2002 that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, he still would have voted to authorize Bush to go to war.
"Yes I would have voted for the authority. I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," Kerry said.
The president then hammered Kerry for more than a week, portraying the Democratic presidential nominee as endorsing his own approach.
But Kerry's position had not changed. He also emphasized in the Aug. 9 exchange that he would have used the war authority differently than Bush did.
The distinction was lost in the din.
Perhaps harder for Kerry to explain has been his October 2003 vote against $87 billion for operations in Iraq.
"I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it," Kerry said once, a line that the Bush campaign used in commercials to mock Kerry for inconsistency.
However, Kerry's line was but a clumsy way of saying that he had voted for a Democratic version of the bill that would have raised the $87 billion by repealing Bush's income tax cuts for people making over $300,000 a year.
When that measure failed, Kerry voted against the $87 billion on final passage. He said his vote was a protest against adding $87 billion to the burgeoning federal budget deficit. He also said he was protesting what he saw as sloppy planning for securing the peace. That position, at least, is consistent with a belief that Bush mishandled the authority that Congress gave him.
"Because I saw what was happening, I voted against it," Kerry said Monday night on the "Late Show with David Letterman."
However, other analysts have also noted that Kerry's vote against the $87 billion came at a time when his presidential campaign was stalled and Democratic voters were flocking to the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean—whose entire campaign was based upon condemning the war in Iraq. Kerry's vote looked like an opportunistic effort to curry favor with anti-war Democratic primary voters.
By concentrating fire on Kerry's votes, Bush turned the campaign debate over the war in Iraq, which remains unpopular, into a referendum on the challenger's consistency rather than his own judgment in going to war and managing its aftermath.
Now Kerry is shifting from defense to offense.
Beginning Monday with a forceful speech at New York University blasting Bush's conduct of the war, Kerry has begun to reframe the Iraq debate toward what needs to be done now, and away from his two Senate votes.
"If we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight," he said. "At every fork in the road, he has taken the wrong turn and led us in the wrong direction."
The next day Kerry explained his shift in emphasis: "The president wants to shift the topic, and I'm not going to let him shift the topic. This is about President Bush and his decisions and his choices and his unwillingness ... to live in a world of reality."
There is at least one large inconsistency remaining in Kerry's record on Iraq.
In 1991, he voted against the resolution authorizing President George H.W. Bush to go to war to dislodge Iraq's army from Kuwait. At the time most Democrats feared invading Iraq would produce heavy U.S. casualties, and they remained haunted by the Vietnam War. Most Democrats, including Kerry, opposed giving the first President Bush authority to go to war.
But recently Kerry was asked: Wasn't that the same thing you said the younger Bush needed this time around?
Kerry brushed off the question.
"That's not the real debate," he said. "The debate now is whether or not you have a plan to win, and whether or not you are facing the realities on the ground in Iraq."
(Knight Ridder correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.