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JEFF JACOBY

John Kerry's shifting stands

IN THE 2004 presidential field, there is a candidate for nearly every point of view.

His name is John Kerry.

Equivocating politicians are sometimes accused of trying to be "all things to all people," but few have taken the practice of expedience and shifty opportunism to Kerry's level. Massachusetts residents have known this about their junior senator for a long time. Now the rest of the country is going to find out.

Here's how it works: Say you're in favor of capital punishment for terrorists. Well, so is Kerry. "I am for the death penalty for terrorists because terrorists have declared war on your country," he said in December 2002. "I support killing people who declare war on our country."

But if you're opposed to capital punishment even for terrorists, that's OK -- Kerry is too! Between 1989 and 1993, he voted at least three times to exempt terrorists from the death penalty. In a debate with former governor William Weld, his opponent in the 1996 Senate race, Kerry scorned the idea of executing terrorists. Anti-death penalty nations would refuse to extradite them to the United States, he said. "Your policy," he told Weld, "would amount to a terrorist protection policy. Mine would put them in jail."

What does Kerry really think? Who knows? He seems to have conveniently switched his stance after Sept. 11, 2001, but he insists that politics had nothing to do with his reversal. Either way, one thing is clear: His willingness to swing both ways fits a longstanding pattern of coming down firmly on both sides of controversial issues.

Take the Patriot Act. Kerry condemns it fiercely as the stuff of a "knock-in-the-night" police state. He vows "to end the era of John Ashcroft" by "replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time."

So does that mean he voted against it in 2001? Au contraire! Kerry voted for the law -- parts of which he originally wrote. He singled out its money-laundering sections for particular praise but declared that he was "pleased at the compromise we have reached on the antiterrorism legislation as a whole."

Bottom line, then: Is Kerry for or against the Patriot Act? Absolutely.

The hottest issue in Kerry's home state at the moment is same-sex marriage. Most Massachusetts citizens take only one position on this scorchingly controversial topic, but Kerry doesn't like to limit himself that way.

So on the one hand, he voted against the federal Defense of Marriage Act, calling the law "fundamentally ugly" and "legislative gay-bashing." On the other hand, he says he's against same-sex marriage and refused to condemn a DOMA-like amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution. (At one point last week, he left open the possibility of endorsing it.) On the other other hand, he supports civil unions -- same-sex marriage in all but name. And on yet another other hand, he claims to "have the same position Vice President Dick Cheney has." (Cheney's view is that "different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate.")

Where Kerry will ultimately come down on this issue is anybody's guess. But it's safe to say that wherever you come down, he'll be able to claim he was there all along.

Then there's the war. Many observers have remarked on Kerry's dual stand on the military campaign that liberated Iraq -- he voted for it but vehemently condemns it. In 1991, by contrast, he did the opposite: He voted against using force to roll back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait yet he claims it was an operation he firmly supported. "I believed we should kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait," Kerry told The Washington Post last month. So why did he vote no? Because he wanted the first President Bush "to take a couple more months to build the support of the nation."

Or so he says now. What Kerry actually said in 1991 was that there was a "rush to war" that might lead to "another generation of amputees, paraplegics, burn victims." He blasted the elder Bush for being too "unilateral" -- hmm, that sounds familiar -- and demanded: "Is the liberation of Kuwait so imperative that all those risks are worthwhile at this moment?" Eleven days later he wrote to a constituent that he opposed the war and had wanted to give economic sanctions "more time to work." Nine days after that he wrote to the same constituent and said that he "strongly and unequivocally supported President Bush's response to the crisis."

Reviewing the bidding, then, Kerry's position is that he voted against a war he was really for and voted for a war he was really against. But the war he was really for he never said he was for at the time. Except when he was writing to voters to say that he was. And that he wasn't.

Confused? Don't feel bad. Trying to keep up with Kerry's shifting stands can be baffling even to those of us who have followed his career for decades. You'll be hearing a lot more about them before this campaign is over.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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