Jul 1 2008

Sidebar: The Most Liberal Senator?

[Note: This is a sidebar to “Obama the Snob?: Hanging the ‘elitist’ label on another Democratic candidate“]

In the 2004 election, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was crowned by an influential Beltway publication with an unexpected designation: He was, according to its calculation, the most liberal member of the Senate (National Journal, 2/28/04). The ranking was endlessly trumpeted by Republican spokespeople.

Almost four years later, the soon-to-be Democratic presidential candidate had the same label attached to his record—by the same publication. On January 31, 2008, the National Journal’s annual ranking of senators placed Barack Obama as the furthest left Senate lawmaker in 2007.

The Obama-is-most-liberal line has already become a standard talking point of campaign coverage, as when new Fox News Channel pundit Karl Rove (4/18/08) said of Obama: “Look, is he a very far left-wing Democrat. He’s the most liberal member of the United States Senate, which is a very difficult title to win in a body that’s as left-wing as that body is.”

A CBS Evening News report by Nancy Cordes (2/20/08), summarizing the potential attacks available to John McCain, suggested that the Republican candidate should “highlight Obama’s record as the most liberal voter in the Senate.”

Some punditry suggested that it didn’t really matter whether the ranking was accurate or not. The Washington Post editorialized (2/24/08) that the ranking was “an assessment that is subject to legitimate quibbling but will no doubt be featured by Republicans if Mr. Obama wins the Democratic nomination for president.” ABC host George Stephanopoulos (2/3/08) remarked:

When you’ve got the new unknown candidate who isn’t defined yet, and can be defined, and you saw the National Journal this week—he was the most liberal senator. Now, I don’t put any credence in the way they get to that. But it’s still a line Republicans are going to use.

Somehow, the likelihood that Republicans would exploit this factoid didn’t make media any more interested in examining why you might not put much credence in it. The National Journal’s methodology is indeed curious; the magazine selected 99 votes and arbitrarily determined which was the “liberal” and “conservative” side. Would you require inspection of all international shipping containers for national security threats? That would make you a liberal, by National Journal’s somewhat murky standards.

Based on this self-created scorecard, the magazine reported, “Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 votes in which he participated, while Clinton voted the liberal position on 77 of 82 votes.” In other words, Clinton took a “liberal” position 12 times more than Obama did—which puts Clinton 15 places to Obama’s right, by National Journal’s lights. There were a total of two votes where Obama took the “liberal” position where Clinton voted the “conservative” way—including a vote to establish an Office of Public Integrity for the Senate, a bill sponsored by the centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman (Washington Note, 1/31/08).

National Journal has acknowledged that its 2004 ranking was marred by the fact that Kerry, like other lawmakers running for higher office, missed a large proportion of votes, making his score unrepresentative (Carpetbagger Report, 2/5/08). To adjust for this flaw, it’s now possible to miss too many votes to be ranked; McCain did so and avoided a National Journal ranking, but Obama, who missed more than a third of the votes, still voted often enough for the magazine’s methodology.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman pointed out (6/8/08), the National Journal’s ranking system doesn’t make much sense to people who follow politics. “It’s hard to believe [Obama]’s really more liberal than Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders,” Chapman wrote.

Actually, according to the VoteView system, a more comprehensive and objective mathematical model that analyzes all roll call votes (except those that are nearly unanimous) and finds the spectrum that best explains them, Obama in the 100th Senate is slightly to the left of Kerry and a little more to the left of Schumer—but he is to the right of the other four senators Chapman mentions; Obama was tied for 10th most-progressive senator, while Clinton was tied for 19th.

On the other hand, a system that gave a more accurate ranking wouldn’t be as useful to the Republicans—and therefore wouldn’t give National Journal as much free publicity.