Lists are fun.
They are a great way to judge the best songs of the year, the relative strength of college basketball teams, and stuff white people like. People enjoy reading lists -- hey, you clicked on this headline, didn't you? Lists are not, however, an appropriate way to measure presidential candidates' political viewpoints.
Nevertheless, the National Journal continues to release their annual senate vote ratings, listing the 100 U.S. senators from most liberal to most conservative. Many media outlets cite this list as if it were a certified mathematical fact. It's not.
This year, National Journal ranks Barack Obama as the single most liberal senator of them all. Why? Because he's running for president.
National Journal's list is flawed because it takes into account how often senators vote with and against the majority of their party. But running for president is unfortunately a full-time job, and senators doing so end up missing many votes. They only return for the most important votes, when they are likely to make the difference for their party. So Democratic senators running for president have fewer chances to vote against the rest of their party, and thus, by National Journal's measurement, they are more liberal.
Any casual observer of the Senate knows that Obama isn't more liberal than Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer or Bernie Sanders. For that matter, Hillary Clinton isn't the Senate's sixteenth most liberal senator, as National Journal claims. Clinton has spent her seven years in the senate positioning herself as a moderate, and her overall record should rank her much closer to 50 than to one.
It's not that Obama shouldn't be called a liberal -- that much is a fair enough claim. But the "Number One Most Liberal" tag is an inaccurate one, and a dangerous one too, because it's tailor-made for a GOP general election advertisement.
The same thing happened in 2004, when John Kerry was running for president, and National Journal ranked him as the number one most liberal senator. The Republican National Committee ran an advertisement pointing out this important 'fact' to voters. It's safe to say most television viewers didn't look up National Journal to assess the methodology of their rankings. Now that he's back in the Senate full-time, Kerry has slipped from number one all the way down to number 20 -- which just goes to show how ridiculous these ratings are.
National Journal (which in general is an informative and nonpartisan publication) should stop publishing this silly list -- or at least adjust their methodology to reflect reality. But more importantly, it is irresponsible for the nation's leading news organizations to report on this list without noting its obvious flaws.
Just in the last week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have used the National Journal claim as supporting evidence in articles about Obama's political philosophy. To their credit, both papers point our the possibility that the label may not be the most accurate -- but then why even include it?
Lists like these are easy for reporters to use. They back up an argument with a clear and succinct numerical statement. There's just that whole problem of accuracy.
Hey, lists are fun. But we should stop covering the presidential race in a style more suited to a VH1 countdown.
Brendan Spiegel is a former reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the editor of Endless Simmer.