What's Right With Kerry
Investigations were not the only notable moments in Kerry's Senate career. On September 10, 1996, as he was in a tight re-election contest against William Weld, the popular Republican governor of Massachusetts, Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which would deny federal benefits to same-sex couples and permit states to not recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states. He was one of only fourteen senators to oppose the measure. Several leading Senate liberals--including Paul Wellstone, Tom Harkin and Pat Leahy--had voted for it. But on the floor of the Senate that day, Kerry, who noted that he did not support same-sex marriage, said, "I am going to vote against this bill...because I believe that this debate is fundamentally ugly, and it is fundamentally political." He refused to pretend that the bill was not a wedge-issue trap devised by conservative Republicans. The legislation, he charged, was "meant to divide Americans," and he argued fiercely that it was unconstitutional. "If this were truly a defense of marriage act," he said, "it would expand the learning experience for would-be husbands and wives. It would provide for counseling for all troubled marriages, not just for those who can afford it. It would provide treatment on demand for those with alcohol and substance abuse.... It would guarantee daycare for every family that struggles and needs it."
The following year, a re-elected Kerry was in another lonely position as one of only five original sponsors of the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, to provide for full public financing of Congressional elections. The measure would remove practically all special-interest money from House and Senate campaigns. (Kerry's colleagues were Wellstone, Leahy, John Glenn and Joe Biden--all Democrats.) "Kerry was totally into it," says Ellen Miller, former executive director of Public Campaign, a reform group pressing for the legislation. "He believes in this stuff."
In introducing the legislation, Kerry said on the Senate floor, "Special interest money is moving and dictating and governing the agenda of American politics.... If we want to regain the respect and confidence of the American people, and if we want to reconnect to them and reconnect them to our democracy, we have to get the special interest money out of politics." He was also a backer of the better-known McCain-Feingold legislation, a more modest and (some might say) problematic approach to campaign reform. But over the years he's pointed to the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act as the real reform. "It is a tough position in Congress to be for dramatic change in financing elections," says Miller. "It's gutsy to go out and say, 'Let's provide a financially leveled playing field so there is more competition for incumbents.' Kerry and Wellstone were the leaders and took a giant step. It was remarkable."
After two decades in the Senate, Kerry has a long record that can be picked apart by competitors within his own party as well as in the GOP. And though he has been re-elected three times, he has not developed the best political skills. He has not shed a manner too easily criticized as aloof or patrician. He has had brushes with smarmy campaign financing. But there have been times he has shown courage, devotion to justice and commitment to honesty, open government and principle-over-politics. There are few senators of whom that can be said. A full assessment of the man ought to take these portions of his public service into account.