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Kerry's cautious side reemerges

SINCE EMERGING as the Democratic presidential front-runner, John Kerry has put his campaign on cautious cruise control.

That's a problem, for it has brought one of Kerry's worst weaknesses to the fore: his penchant for equivocation. That shortcoming was on full display in Sunday's Democratic debate in Milwaukee.

Let's start with MSNBC anchor Lester Holt's simple question about whether, in Kerry's view, the Republican campaign against him has crossed an inappropriate line.

Kerry: "Well, that's for the American people to judge." Now, this is hardly the most important matter in the free world. But surely Kerry, whose campaign has regularly warned that he will be ferocious in countering unfair attacks, must have an opinion about whether or not the campaign has been above-board.

On to substance. Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked whether, given the loss of jobs of the last few years, Kerry would again vote for NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China, both of which are unpopular in Wisconsin.

Rather than answering directly, Kerry embarked on a discussion of the need for enforceable environment and labor standards in all future trade agreements. Gilbert: "But no regrets about those votes?"

Kerry: "I regret the way that they haven't been enforced, sure." That seems to suggest that Kerry stands by his votes for the trade agreements, but who knows?

Holt later asked how voters should reconcile the "inconsistencies" of Kerry having voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, the Patriot Act, and the resolution authorizing force in Iraq with his current criticisms of the two laws and the war. "Well, they are not inconsistent at all," asserted Kerry, insisting that the problem in the first two instances was with implementation -- before suggesting that, as president, he would change both pieces of legislation.

Asked by Gilbert if he felt any responsibility for the war, given his vote to authorize the president to use force against Iraq, Kerry again avoided a direct reply. Instead, he offered a lengthy critique of what he saw as the errors in Bush's Iraq policy.

When Gilbert specifically repeated his question, Kerry again sidestepped. The president already had the power to go to war, he said. Here's the closest he came to a straightforward response: "My regret is not the vote. . . . My regret is this president chose the wrong way, rushed to war."

Reacting to Kerry's protracted reply, Senator John Edwards quipped that "that's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes or no question."

On to gay marriage. Holt noted that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled against civil unions, which Kerry favors, as a substitute for civil marriage for gays, which the senator opposes. So would Kerry vote for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman? Kerry wouldn't actually vote on a state constitutional amendment except as a Massachusetts citizen if such a measure went to the ballot, but the senator surely knows what the relevant question is: Given his opposition to gay marriage, would he favor such an amendment?

"Well, it depends on the terminology, because it depends on what it does with respect to civil unions and partnership rights," replied Kerry, saying that he thought marriage was between a man and a woman, but that gay and lesbian couples shouldn't be discriminated against with respect to rights.

Holt tried again: "So on a constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman, your vote would be?"

Kerry: "Well, it depends. Not a federal one. . . . I believe the states have a right to make up their own mind, and it ought to be left up to each state individually, period."

So would Kerry support such an amendment if it also put civil union rights in the Constitution? Or would he simply leave the matter up to the states? Again, who could tell?

Here's the bottom line. Kerry brings considerable talent and experience to the table. But he also suffers from a reputation for wanting everything two ways. (Indeed, on Sunday, The Washington Post ran an editorial criticizing Kerry's "fuzziness" on the issues.) Sunday's debate performance leaned hard into that unenviable image.

Which is why, front-runner or not, the senator needs to do better if he hopes to be seen as a straight shooter, not an inartful dodger.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

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