The President misled voters and reporters in a March 20 speech when he claimed that Kerry “voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people” during his 20-year Senate career. Bush spoke of “yes” votes for “tax increases.”
But in fact, Kerry has not voted 350 times for tax increases, something Bush campaign officials have falsely accused Kerry of on several occasions. On close examination, the Bush campaign’s list of Kerry’s votes for “higher taxes” is padded. It includes votes Kerry cast to leave taxes unchanged (when Republicans proposed cuts), and even votes in favor of alternative Democratic tax cuts that Bush aides characterized as “watered down.”
To be sure, Kerry has cast votes to increase taxes, and he’s clearly on record favoring raising taxes on persons making over $200,000 a year, if he’s elected. It’s a major difference between the two candidates. But Bush aides have been falsely accusing Kerry for weeks of casting far more votes for tax increases than is the case. And now the President himself has joined in the misleading attack.
Bush’s campaign manager Ken Mehlman told CNN’s Judy Woodruff on March 12 that “Senator Kerry . . . supported 350 tax increases over the course of his career.” And again on March 16 Mehlman told CNN’s Candy Crowley: “This is a senator who has voted 350 times to raise taxes during the course of his career.” Commerce Secretary Don Evans also said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 10 that Kerry “has voted to increase taxes some 350 times.” And both Fox News and MSNBC quoted Bush’s campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt as saying March 11: “John Kerry has voted for higher taxes 350 times and his numbers for new spending don’t add up.”
The President chose his words somewhat more carefully than did his aides, but still clearly conveyed the idea that Kerry had voted 350 times to raise taxes above current levels. Here’s what he said a political rally in Florida March 20:
Bush: Senator Kerry is one of the main opponents of tax relief in the United States Congress. However, when tax increases are proposed, it’s a lot easier to get a “yes” vote out of him. Over the years, he’s voted over 350 times for higher taxes on the American people —
So it was no surprise when several news organizations quoted President Bush as saying just what his campaign spokesman and his campaign manager had been saying.
The Associated Press said Bush depicted Kerry “as a serial tax-raiser who has voted for tax increases 350 times.” United Press International said Bush “accused Kerry of voting over the past 20 years for tax increasing legislation some 350 times.” The New York Times reported: “Mr. Bush said Mr. Kerry had voted 350 times to raise taxes in his nearly two decades in the Senate,” and The Palm Beach Post said: “The President accused the Massachusetts senator of voting to raise taxes more than 350 times.”
So reporters were misled, as were probably many ordinary voters who listened to the President’s speech. In fact, even the President’s own campaign organization now admits Kerry didn’t vote for tax increases 350 times, or anything close to it.
When pressed for a list of Kerry’s 350 votes, the Bush campaign quickly supplied FactCheck.org with one document listing 352 votes and a second listing an additional 27 votes. But a campaign official cautioned: “It is important to note that these are votes for higher taxes, not necessarily tax increases, meaning it includes votes against tax cuts.” (Emphasis added by FactCheck.org). In other words, what the campaign’s manager and chief spokesman had been saying was wrong. And even the President’s phrasing — saying Kerry voted for “higher taxes” 350 times — is not only misleading but actually misled several news professionals. It’s simply untrue that Kerry voted for tax increases 350 times.
The Bush lists of 379 votes is padded with scores of votes Kerry cast against tax decreases (which would leave taxes unchanged, not higher), votes to reduce the size of proposed tax cuts (which would leave taxes lower, though not as much lower as proposed), and “votes for watered-down, Democrat ‘tax cut’ substitutes” (which often proposed to distribute the benefits of tax cuts farther down the income scale than Republican proposals). Thus the Bush campaign counts some votes for tax cuts as votes for “higher taxes.”
Among the votes the Bush campaign documents count as votes for “higher taxes” are the following:
- A 1985 vote to offset a proposed increase in Medicare premiums by preventing the tax on cigarettes from dropping to 8 cents a pack from 16 cents, as it was scheduled to do. Taxes would have remained at 16 cents a pack.
- A 1986 vote against a non-binding resolution to express the “sense of the Senate” that hazardous-waste “superfund” cleanup shouldn’t be paid for by a broad-based tax on manufacturers, but by some unspecified alternative source. Taxes would have remained the same.
- A 1987 vote against repealing a “windfall profits” tax on oil. Taxes would have remained the same.
- A 1989 vote to sustain a Democratic filibuster against a proposed cut in the capital-gains tax. Taxes would have remained the same.
None of these votes would have resulted in a tax increase, and most of the votes on the Bush lists are like that. Whether they would have resulted in “higher taxes” depends: higher than what? Bush campaign officials argue that in each of the votes they list, Kerry was presented with alternatives and chose the higher of the two. Perhaps the President should have said Kerry voted 350 times for “higher taxes than Republicans prefer.”
George W. Bush “President Bush Energizes Florida Supporters at First Rally of the 2004 Campaign” Transcript of Campaign Speech at Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, Florida 20 March 2004.
Nancy Benac, “Bush, at 1st Voter Rally, Carps at Kerry” Associated Press 21 March 2004.
Richard W. Stevenson, “At Rally in Vital State, Bush Attacks Kerry on Economy,” The New York Times 21 March 2004: A18.
Brian E. Crowley, “Bush Brings it On: Thousands Cheer Views on Taxes, Security, Iraq,” Palm Beach Post 21 March 2004: A1.
Richard Tomkins, “Bush Rallies Florida Supporters,” United Press International 20 March 2004.
Mike Allen, “Bush Turns to Fla. To Set Aggressive Pace; Rally Kicks Off Intensive Grass-Roots Campaign,” Washington Post 21 March 2004: A5.
Ken Mehlman, interview, Judy Woodruff’s Inside Politics, Cable News Network, 16 March 2004.
Don Evans, interview, CNN Wolf Blitzer Reports, Cable News Network, 10 March 2004.
Kerry Comment Riles Bush Campaign, Fox News 11 March 2004.
Bush, Kerry Trade Jabs on Economy, MSNBC.com 11 March 2004.