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Flawed Study Ranks Obama As "Most Liberal"

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[To read Stephen Schlesinger's post, "Hillary Confronts Bush on Iraq Bases", go here.]

So National Journal has published their "authoritative" list of who's who in the world of Liberality. And right on time, Barack Obama -- you know, the huge Reagan fan! -- is the undisputed number one liberal in the world. And Hillary's no slouch either: while she avoids the recognition of being labelled America's Next Top Soviet Insurgent, she comes up as the Senate's sixteenth-most liberal member.

What does it all mean? Frankly, not much more than the National Journal finding "liberals" to be scary! The whole endeavor is a twisted skein of fuzzy math and ever shifting standards. What can one make of these numbers? Clinton supposedly voted "liberal" eight more times on sixteen more votes than Obama, yet Obama is somehow "more" liberal. Maybe it's percentages, then! Obama took the "liberal position" sixty-five out of sixty-six times, according to the NJ's data. That sure seems pretty liberal, but I can't recall anyone ever suggesting that Barack Obama was somehow the reincarnation of Paul Wellstone.

So much depends upon how many votes each lawmaker actually casts. The National Journal shunts every single vote into three separate "issue categories," and if an individual member misses more than half the votes in any category, they don't receive a composite score. By this logic, absenteeism somehow magically obscures your political leanings! This wasn't a position the NJ took four years ago, by the way. As they admit, their considerations for absenteeism only came about "after Kerry was ranked the most liberal senator in our 2003 ratings despite having missed more than half of the votes in two categories." Convenient!

It really shouldn't have to be said, but let's say it: the biggest flaw with these rankings is that they purport to render a quantitative measurement to a qualitative attribute. This is something Brian Beutler takes up:

On almost any of the major votes that Obama missed, you'll find that men like Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders were usually on hand, making phone calls, rallying their colleagues, and voting the right way. More to the point, those men advocate from the floor for progressive positions, with passion, every week while Barack Obama does not.

Indeed. As Aristotle teaches in The Poetics, character is revealed through a person's deeds, and roll call votes are just one thin aspect of a Senatorial career. Some Senators rally for liberal causes. Some write and sponsor bills. Some walk the halls, working the caucus. But then there are other members of the Senate who forge compromises in committee, who tack on amendments, who fundamentally shift the nature of an individual bill toward one end of the spectrum or another. There are procedural games that are played, parliamentary maneuvers. At times, members are freed of the obligation to vote with the caucus in order to lessen the heat from constituents. By the time a bill gets voted on, any number of individuals have registered any number of effects, all of which speak more clearly to their individual "liberalism" (or lack thereof) than the vote does.

Here's an example. Back on November 6, Dennis Kucinich -- a well-known liberal -- attempted to introduce articles of impeachment against Dick Cheney. The Democratic leadership moved to kick Kucinich's bill into committee, where it could be effectively killed. They didn't do this out of kinship with Dick Cheney! They did it because they just didn't need the grief that would ensue if they took up the impeachment issue. But the Republican caucus forced a floor vote to openly consider Kucinich's bill in an attempt to embarrass the Democrats. By a close vote, the Democrats eventually prevailed, chasing Kucinich's impeachment into committee. This may not have been a vote tracked by the National Journal, but if you apply their logic to this vote, you would have to conclude that the Republicans were taking the "liberal position." Does that make any sense?

Naturally, you'll find few people in the professional set who actually believe these rankings are a pure measure of ideological bent. In the end, this is just a cheap political stunt that purports to be backed by statistics. But that won't stop the media -- who've proven themselves to be wholly inept at doing the sort of critical reporting necessary to debunk this sort of claptrap -- from using these "findings" as grist for any number of storylines. Should you buy in? We'll leave you with this: these findings state that Ron Paul is only the "178th-most-conservative lawmaker" in the U.S. House of Representatives. No sane person believes that.