The 11th Most Liberal Senator

Election '04

You've heard it over and over from the Bush campaign: John Kerry is the most liberal member of the Senate. Not only that, John Edwards is the fourth-most liberal Senator. A day barely goes by when a Republican spinner doesn't pull this "fact" out to garnish an attack on the Democratic ticket, like a sprig of rhetorical parsley laid across a course of feigned outrage and misleading criticism.

Since we hear it so often, and since so few people know where it comes from or what it means (including some who use the attack themselves), it might be worthwhile to get our facts straight. As you might have heard, the ranking in question comes from the National Journal, a non-partisan magazine read widely in Washington and largely unknown outside the Beltway. Every year, the Journal selects a group of Congressional votes they think are particularly revealing of ideology, and count up where each House member and Senator voted on them. The legislators are then ranked in relative terms, each receiving a score indicating where they voted relative to the other members of their body (this is in contrast to the many liberal and conservative interest groups that give scores in absolute terms, on how often the member agrees with the group on votes important to them).

When the National Journal calculated their ratings for 2003, the Republicans got a gift wrapped up in a big red bow: John Kerry came out as the most liberal Senator, while John Edwards came in at number four. But there was something funny about the 2003 numbers, particularly when it comes to these two.

An Unusual Year

The funny thing about 2003 related to what the National Journal does when a legislator misses votes. The Journal used 62 votes to come up with the 2003 rankings, a fairly small number relative to the hundreds of votes a Senator casts in a year. They calculate three different ratings: one for economic policy, one for social policy, and one for foreign policy. These three are then combined to come up with an overall ranking.

But here's the catch: If a Senator misses more than half the votes the Journal uses in any one of these three categories, they don't count any of the votes he makes for that category, using only the remaining categories to calculate his overall score. If you're running for president, as both Kerry and Edwards were in 2003, you miss a lot of votes when you're off in coffee klatches and VFW halls in Iowa and New Hampshire. So Kerry missed 37 of the 62 votes, while Edwards missed 22. Consequently, the National Journal gave Kerry no score for economic or social policy, basing his entire ranking on his score on foreign policy. Edwards, on the other hand, got no score on foreign policy.

Is Kerry a liberal? You bet. He's pro-choice, against Bush's tax cuts, for environmental protection, and for universal health care, to name a few issues. Of course, so are a majority of Americans. But is he the most liberal member of the Senate? Hardly.

Obviously, if you want to know how liberal or conservative a Senator is, the best thing to do is to look at their entire career. How does Kerry compare to his colleagues? For starters, he's not the most liberal - in fact, among current Senators he comes in eleventh. Here's the top fifteen, with the composite score for each Senator in parentheses:

1. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. (90.3)

2. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. (89.4)

3. Jack Reed, D-R.I. (89.3)

4. Jon Corzine, D-N.J. (88.8)

5. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. (88.6)

6. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. (88.5)

7. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa (87.6)

8. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. (87.3)

9. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. (86.2)

10. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (86.0)

11. John Kerry, D-Mass. (85.7)

12. Carl Levin, D-Mich. (85.5)

13. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. (83.9)
14. Patty Murray, D-Wash. (83.8)

15. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. (83.8)

As for Edwards, he was the fourth most liberal in 2003. But he was 40th in 2002, 35th in 2001, 19th in 2000, and 31st in 1999, his first year in the Senate.

But Does it Really Matter?

Ideology itself certainly matters; it reflects the perspective politicians bring to issues we know about and those we haven't imagined yet. There will be some people who hear "John Kerry is the most liberal member of the Senate" and respond, "Great!" while others think the opposite. But while wonks can debate whether Kerry is more liberal than Carl Levin or Pat Leahy, for most people the distinctions are impossible to discern.

For thirty years, the National Election Studies asked Americans which party they believed was more conservative. This is about as basic a question about ideology – and American politics in general – as one could come up with. It would probably surprise most people to learn that the proportion of respondents who correctly answered that the Republicans are the conservative party seldom rose above 60%.

For the rest – and many of the 60% as well – the ideas of "liberal" and "conservative" don't have much meat to them. They don't evoke specific issue positions or policy disagreements, and they have little to do with how people think about themselves. But conservatives have worked very hard to make the word "liberal" call up negative stereotypes – mushy-headed, wimpy, indulgent of deviant behavior and sexual transgression, disrespectful of religious faith, and so on.

Of course, a ranking by someone like the National Journal has little to do with any of these qualities; it's a collection of votes, some of which fall less than perfectly on one side of the philosophical divide between liberalism and conservatism. The Bush campaign isn't hoping that voters will take a clear look at all Kerry has done in the past and is proposing now, and conclude that they disagree with him on fundamental questions of government; in fact, they know (as does the Kerry campaign), that all but a few will do nothing of the sort.

No, the intention is that if they repeat the "most liberal Senator" charge, lots of people will say to themselves, "Gee, I don't know, that Kerry is so liberal." Ask them just what that means and a scant few could tell you. But in the end, it's the impression, much more than the facts, that will make the difference.

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