Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal's 27th annual vote ratings. The insurgent presidential candidate shifted further to the left last year in the run-up to the primaries, after ranking as the 16th- and 10th-most-liberal during his first two years in the Senate.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., the other front-runner in the Democratic presidential race, also shifted to the left last year. She ranked as the 16th-most-liberal senator in the 2007 ratings, a computer-assisted analysis that used 99 key Senate votes, selected by NJ reporters and editors, to place every senator on a liberal-to-conservative scale in each of three issue categories. In 2006, Clinton was the 32nd-most-liberal senator.
In their yearlong race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama and Clinton have had strikingly similar voting records. Of the 267 measures on which both senators cast votes in 2007, the two differed on only 10. "The policy differences between Clinton and Obama are so slight they are almost nonexistent to the average voter," said Richard Lau, a Rutgers University political scientist.
But differences define campaigns. The yeas and nays matter. And in a Senate in which party-line votes are the rule, the rare exceptions help to show how two senators who seemed like ideological twins in 2007 were not actually identical. Obama and Clinton were more like fraternal policy twins, NJ's vote ratings show.
As the battles for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential nominations have raged, the candidates have blasted each other for taking positions that are out of line with party dogma. Obama has repeatedly challenged Clinton's 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war, labeling her foreign policy "Bush/Cheney-lite"; Clinton has pointed to Obama's "present" votes on the abortion issue in the Illinois Legislature to raise questions about his support for abortion rights. Meanwhile, Republicans have battled over the strength of their conservative credentials on taxes, immigration, and national security.
When the campaign shifts into the general election, however, the two nominees may each seek to cast their opponent as a party extremist. During the 2004 presidential campaign, for instance, Republicans attacked Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as an extreme liberal, including by pointing to his ranking as the most liberal senator in NJ's 2003 vote ratings.
Such lines of attack are already apparent in this year's race. At a January 16 Republican National Committee meeting, Karl Rove, President Bush's former campaign architect, called Obama "a straight-down-the-line United States Senate national Democrat." Rove pointedly added: "Nonpartisan ratings say that he has a more liberal and a more straight-party voting record than Senator Clinton does. Pretty hard to do." How the eventual nominee handles criticisms of his or her voting record could help determine the next president of the United States.
Contacted on January 30 to respond to Obama's scores in NJ's vote ratings, his campaign said that the liberal ranking belies the public support he has been receiving. "As Senator Obama travels across the country, and as we've seen in the early contests, he's the one candidate who's shown the ability to appeal to Republicans and the ability to appeal to independents," said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
But she also said that it's important to note the differences between Obama and Clinton on key issues. "The Democratic Party needs to nominate someone who shows a clear contrast with where Republicans are, on issues like the war in Iraq and the economy and the influence of lobbyists on Washington," Psaki said. "One of the reasons he's received such strong support is because he's drawn the starkest contrast on those issues."
Asked whether the liberal ranking could be used against Obama in the campaign, Psaki said that voters appreciate that he is up front about his positions on issues, even if those positions don't line up with their own. "Part of the reason he's appealing to some Republicans and independents is, he has that authenticity," she said. "He's very clear from the beginning that we can't do this alone and we need to work across party lines and focus more on uniting than on dividing."
Asked about Clinton's relatively moderate placement in NJ's rankings, one of her campaign advisers responded, "Her voting record as a whole shows she takes a comprehensive, balanced approach toward policy. Senator Clinton looks at the broader picture. She tries to see the challenges from not only the blue-collar worker's face, but also the white-collar worker's, not only Wall Street but also Main Street, and from that tries to put together a policy that's best for America as a whole."
The Clinton adviser said that the Democratic candidates' shift to the left reflects the two parties' stark splits over Bush's policies. Asked how the differences between Obama's and Clinton's voting records have played on the campaign trail, the adviser emphasized that the two have not differed over the past year on the critical issue of the Iraq war. "The most interesting thing of this exercise is... it simply looks at the votes," the adviser said. "Did they vote yes? Did they vote no? What did they vote? For the most part, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have identical voting records on Iraq."
The Yeas And Nays
Indeed, the similarities in Obama's and Clinton's voting records last year were extensive. Both supported most measures aimed at withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Both supported comprehensive immigration legislation including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Both voted to support most Democratic positions on health care, education, energy, and the budget, and both voted against most Republican positions on those topics.
But NJ's vote ratings are designed to draw distinctions that illuminate the differences among lawmakers. The calculations ranked senators relative to each other based on the 99 key votes and assigned scores in three areas: economic issues, social issues, and foreign policy. (House members were scored in a separate set of rankings. The full results for both chambers will be published in our March 8 issue.)
On foreign policy, for example, Obama's liberal score of 92 and conservative score of 7 indicate that he was more liberal in that issue area than 92 percent of the senators and more conservative than 7 percent. Clinton was more liberal than 83 percent of the senators on foreign policy and more conservative than 16 percent. The ratings do not mean that she voted with liberals 83 percent of the time, or that she was 83 percent "correct" from a liberal perspective.
The ratings system -- devised in 1981 under the direction of William Schneider, a political analyst and commentator, and a contributing editor to National Journal -- also assigns "composite" scores, an average of the members' issue-based scores. In 2007, Obama's composite liberal score of 95.5 was the highest in the Senate. Rounding out the top five most liberal senators last year were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., with a composite liberal score of 94.3; Joseph Biden, D-Del., with a 94.2; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with a 93.7; and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., with a 92.8.
Clinton, meanwhile, tied as the 16th-most-liberal senator in 2007 with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; both had a composite liberal score of 82.8. Clinton's home-state colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., was the 15th-most-liberal, with a composite score of 83.
Members who missed more than half of the votes in any of the three issue categories did not receive a composite score in NJ's ratings. (This rule was imposed after Kerry was ranked the most liberal senator in our 2003 ratings despite having missed more than half of the votes in two categories.) Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the only other senator whose presidential candidacy survived the initial round of primaries and caucuses this year, did not vote frequently enough in 2007 to draw a composite score. He missed more than half of the votes in both the economic and foreign-policy categories. On social issues, which include immigration, McCain received a conservative score of 59. (McCain's composite scores from his prior years in the Senate, published in our March 2007 vote ratings issue, are available as a PDF.)
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the lone House member still in the presidential race, had a composite conservative score of 60.2, making him the 178th-most-conservative lawmaker in that chamber in 2007. His libertarian views placed him close to the center of the House in both the social issues and foreign-policy categories. He registered more conservative on economic issues.
Overall in NJ's 2007 ratings, Obama voted the liberal position on 65 of the 66 key votes on which he voted; Clinton voted the liberal position 77 of 82 times. Obama garnered perfect liberal scores in both the economic and social categories. His score in the foreign-policy category was nearly perfect, pulled down a notch by the only conservative vote that he cast in the ratings, on a Republican-sponsored resolution expressing the sense of Congress that funding should not be cut off for U.S. troops in harm's way. The Senate passed the resolution 82-16 with the support of both Obama and Clinton. The 16 opponents included mostly liberals, such as Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Sanders.
Clinton took the conservative position four other times in NJ's 2007 ratings. (See how Obama and Clinton voted in the three issue categories in this PDF.) The one that registered the loudest on the campaign trail was a vote that she cast in favor of an amendment sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that called on the Bush administration to reduce Iranian influence on Iraq and to designate the Iranian revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization. The "sense of the Senate" amendment was approved 76-22.
Obama missed that vote, but said he would have voted no. In fact, on the campaign trail, he criticized Clinton for her position, arguing that the Bush administration could use the Senate vote to justify waging war on Iran. "I strongly differ with Senator Hillary Clinton, who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to support this reckless amendment," Obama wrote in an opinion article in The Union Leader, published in Manchester, N.H. To combat that criticism, Clinton signed a letter to Bush urging him not to attack Iran and co-sponsored legislation requiring the president to seek congressional approval before an attack.
The Liberal Label
As Obama and Clinton have wooed Democratic primary voters, both have emphasized their liberal policy positions. But neither has embraced the liberal label the way that the Republican presidential candidates have proudly stamped themselves as conservatives.
In Obama's first splash on the national stage, as keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he disparaged ideological labels as weapons used by partisans who have little else to offer. "Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spinmasters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything-goes," he said. "Well, I say to them tonight: There's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America."
Talk like that is what makes Obama popular across the ideological spectrum, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. "It's not the '90s all over again," she said. "Instead of focusing in on what divides us, it's focusing in on what can unite us. People are sick of the divisions. Republicans I know -- and I know quite a few -- are very enthused by this guy."
For her part, Clinton at times has emphasized her nuts-and-bolts pragmatism. She cites her work with GOP colleagues such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, with whom she collaborated for three years to secure medical benefits for National Guard troops. Clinton hit that theme in a December ad aimed at independent voters in New Hampshire. "I've learned if you want to get things done, you have to know when to stand your ground and when to find common ground," she said as she looked into the camera.
In recent interviews, both candidates' supporters contended that they can handle any charges that they are too liberal for the country. Whitehouse, a Clinton supporter, said that she weathered that storm throughout her years as first lady. "What people remember as polarizing was the rabid Republican smear attack that lasted for years against the Clintons," he said. "When you actually look at her on the record and working, she's solidly bipartisan and very productive."
Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who has endorsed Clinton, said that she has been wise to defend her 2002 vote for the Iraq war. "I admire that," he added. "I think I give her credit for being resolute in her conviction that the vote was right at the time. Senator Clinton has this in her character. I'm hopeful that when she's elected, that will manifest itself from the White House."
Obama's supporters likewise said that his record points to bipartisanship. "He has strong positions, but he doesn't demonize the opposition," Virginia Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine said in an interview. "He talks about the strength of his particular views, but he wants to hear from the other side and try to find common ground. He has a track record of always reaching out and trying to find someone on the other side of the aisle that he can partner with."
Kerry, who has endorsed Obama, told NJ on January 29 that attacks on his own liberalism had no impact on the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. That line of attack wouldn't work against Obama either, he said. "The whole point, folks, is -- and the Republicans love to be simplistic and they also love to be wrong -- is that he represents somebody who's bringing together a broad coalition of people," Kerry said. "It's not going to stick. People are tired of the stupidity of these labels. They're tired of that game."
Asked about the question of ideology in this year's campaign, Democrats generally said that most voters do not focus on labels such as "liberal" and "conservative." "By and large, your average person out there, particularly young voters, are less interested in labels and more interested in seeing that somebody is going to put up or shut up," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
Republicans, however, insist that they can make hay by showing how liberal the Democratic nominee is. "Senator Obama's voting record, from what I have seen of it, tends to be very left-leaning," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "I saw Senator Kennedy's endorsement of him as both an acknowledgement of that similar ideological view, but also -- perhaps just as significant -- that he represents the future and [Clinton] represented the past."
In the general election, Cornyn said, the ideological differences between the Republican and Democratic nominee "would be certainly a stark contrast." Drawing that distinction "would be important to present to people," he said, adding that notwithstanding Obama's appeal "really across party lines," his ideology "would be certainly what the election would focus on."
Graham, a McCain supporter, was equally adamant that ideology would be very important. Whether Clinton or Obama is the nominee, Graham said, the differences between the two parties' candidates on taxes, judicial nominees, and war policy would be significant. "I mean, there would be big, huge thematic differences," he said.
When asked about the Clinton ad featuring her work with him to show how she reaches across party lines, Graham noted he was proud that they extended military health care to the Guard and Reserves. "I don't want her to be president not because I don't like her," he added. "I know the judges that she will appoint will be the opposite of what I would like. I know what she would do with the tax problems we have -- she will not make the tax cuts permanent. And I know what she would do in Iraq. She would withdraw. She said she would begin withdrawing in 60 days of becoming president. That would be a disaster."
© 2008 The National Journal