The Presidential Wanna-bes
Of the seven congressional Democrats who are running for president in 2004 or have indicated they might run, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts had the most liberal voting record last year and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida had the most conservative, according to National Journal’s vote ratings.
A compilation of the annual scores for the seven Democrats over the past 20 years shows that Kerry was the most liberal throughout the period. But Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., was slightly more conservative than Graham over the entirety of their years in the Senate.
With limited exceptions, Kerry’s scores have consistently placed him toward the liberal end of the Senate. Graham, likewise, has always been among the more conservative Senate Democrats. The ratings showed that he was at the ideological center of the chamber in 1993, when Democrats held the majority. Lieberman’s scores have been remarkably close to Graham’s, but Lieberman had an upward blip last year, when he earned his most liberal scores of his 14 years in the Senate.
Among the other presidential contenders, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has been in the moderate-to-conservative range of Senate Democrats during his four years in the chamber. The scores of Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut-both of whom have voiced interest in running for president but have not committed themselves-have varied more from year to year, although the average scores for each over the past 20 years place them near the center of Senate Democrats.
Dodd, for example, was among the most liberal senators in the early 1980s, then moved toward the center in the early 1990s, but his scores in the past few years have been close to Kerry’s. Biden began the 20-year period with more-conservative scores, moved left in the early 1990s, and has recently settled toward the center of Senate Democrats.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the only House member who has been actively pursuing a 2004 presidential bid, has regularly fallen in the middle of House Democrats, according to the ratings. Although Gephardt’s rankings cannot be directly correlated to those of the senators-since members are ranked relative only to others in the same chamber-it is fair to conclude that his legislative profile places him near the middle of the ideological pack of the other Democratic presidential wanna-bes.
National Journal’s vote ratings rank members of Congress on how they vote, relative to each other on a conservative-to-liberal scale, in each chamber. The scores, which have been compiled each year since 1981, are based on lawmakers’ votes in three issue areas: economic, social, and foreign policy. The scores are determined by a computer-assisted calculation that ranks members from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other, based on key votes-55 in the Senate and 61 in the House-selected by National Journal reporters and editors.
For example, the results show that on social policy issues, Edwards last year had a liberal score of 56 and a conservative score of 38. That means that Edwards was more liberal than 56 percent of other senators on those issues and more conservative than 38 percent; he tied the remaining 6 percent. The scores do not mean that Edwards voted with liberals 56 percent of the time, for example, nor that he was 56 percent “correct” from a liberal perspective. On economic issues, Edwards’s liberal score was 66 percent and his conservative score was 32 percent. That means that his economic votes placed him further to the left within the Senate than did his votes on social issues.
Any presidential candidates who come from Congress can expect that some of their legislative votes will become campaign issues. In fact, their voting records will be grist for the opposition research that has become fundamental to modern campaigns.
Republican political consultant Scott Reed, manager of the 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole, who faced a competitive primary while serving as Senate majority leader, said that the presidential candidates’ congressional voting records “matter because the ideological groups use them quite aggressively in the early primary states. And they often play a role in the debates, where a candidate has to defend his record.”
Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University, cited the battle for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, when allies of George W. Bush attacked some environmental votes that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had cast in Congress. “It certainly gives the opposition an opportunity to use certain votes, and to typecast,” Wayne said. “One of the advantages that governors have is that they do not have that track record.”
When contacted by National Journal, aides to several of the Democratic presidential candidates downplayed the significance of the vote ratings. Robert Gibbs, who recently signed on as Kerry’s campaign press secretary, said that although Kerry’s votes may appear liberal, his broad background as a veteran, a former prosecutor, and an early supporter of a balanced budget and education reform make him difficult to “pigeonhole.” Gibbs added, “Are opponents going to use labels? Of course. I don’t know how effective that will be.”
A Lieberman aide responded that Senate votes “have to be seen in context,” because “more and more [votes] these days are not meaningful votes, but sort of party bed checks.” The aide added, “Once you get outside the Beltway and talk to real people, they are much less interested in how you voted in the past than in what your vision is for the future.” An Edwards spokesman voiced a similar reaction. “What matters is the totality of a person’s record,” the aide said.
Graham spokesman Paul Anderson, who emphasized that his boss has not decided whether to run for president, cautioned, “In every political campaign there is an attempt, through opposition research, to isolate individual votes and, unfortunately, misrepresent individual votes.” Citing Graham’s vote last October against authorizing the use of U.S. military force against Iraq, Anderson said it was “not an anti-war vote,” but “a principled position” that the war on terrorism should be a higher priority. Still, Anderson conceded that Graham’s Iraq vote could be interepreted in several ways.
Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith said that lawmakers “have to have a voting record and let the chips fall where they may.” Smith noted, however, that Gephardt will not face one potential problem that his Senate counterparts will: Because of the narrow partisan margin in the Senate, if presidential candidates miss votes while out campaigning, “it will hurt them with some constituencies,” he said.
In addition, Smith noted that the Senate’s more freewheeling procedures enable senators to “bring an amendment to the floor” to attempt to force a vote on nearly any issue. Democratic presidential contenders could use that to their advantage to try to score political points-but so could Republican senators looking to hurt potential rivals to President Bush.
Rutgers University political science professor Ross K. Baker, who has written widely about the Senate, called it a common occurrence for senators to offer an amendment “to make a partisan point, or to damage the candidacy of a particular person.” And Reed predicted that each of the senators running for president will “stake out some serious turf” on a few issues this year to highlight their contrasts.
Which past votes will come into play, and what new votes may transpire, can only be guessed, of course. But the thousands of votes that members of Congress cast during their careers create abundant opportunities for campaign mischief.
Congressional Republican leaders operate on the ideological edge. By contrast, most congressional Democratic leaders fit more comfortably within their party’s center.
As the National Journal vote ratings for 2002 reveal, GOP leaders ranked toward the conservative fringe of their own party and, of course, of their entire chambers. In the Senate, for example, the seven most conservative members-all Republicans-included Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Trent Lott of Mississippi, whom Frist succeeded as leader at the start of the new Congress. Also in that group were Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who was McConnell’s predecessor in the GOP’s No. 2 leadership post. McConnell and Nickles, in fact, were among four Republican senators who had perfect composite conservative scores of 89 in the ratings. (These scores are less than 100 percent because of ties in the ratings. )
The scores for House Republican leaders demonstrated a similar pattern. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the new majority whip, was one of 13 House Republicans with a perfect composite conservative score of 92 in the ratings. Close behind Blunt among the top House conservatives were Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and Dick Armey of Texas, who was DeLay’s predecessor as majority leader, as well as J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who chaired the House Republican Conference during the 107th Congress. (Armey and Watts retired at the end of 2002.) On the other hand, the new conference chairwoman, Deborah Pryce of Ohio, ranked near the center of House Republicans. She brings a slightly more moderate bent to this year’s House GOP leadership team.
Democrats fell into a very different pattern. In the Senate, their top-two party leaders-Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota and Harry Reid of Nevada-both ranked in the middle of their party. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader, had more liberal scores; she was the 11th most liberal senator overall.
Likewise, in the House, most of the top Democratic leaders in 2002 and 2003 earned scores that placed them near the middle of House Democrats. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Martin Frost of Texas, last year’s minority leader and Democratic Caucus chairman, were in that group, as well as Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, this year’s minority whip, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the new caucus chairman. The exception is Nancy Pelosi of California, who has taken over as minority leader. Her scores were among the most liberal in the House.
The vote ratings for recent years have shown similar patterns among the leadership of both parties. The reason could be that the rank and file in each party have contrasting expectations for their leaders: Republicans may look to their leaders to serve as the party standard-bearers, while Democrats prefer their leaders to bring together their various viewpoints. If so, the Pelosi takeover may reflect a move by House Democrats to take a more aggressive leadership approach, while the House Republicans’ selection of Pryce could signal a more cautious leadership style.
As Democrats waged a challenge against Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., in last year’s election, they saw an opportunity. Hutchinson had ranked as the most conservative senator in National Journal’s vote ratings in 2000, and he had tied with several others as the most conservative in the Senate in 1997 and 1998. Democrat Mark Pryor used the ratings as a weapon in his campaign arsenal to charge that Hutchinson had become too conservative for his state. The home of President Clinton, Arkansas has had a history of close statewide elections.
In 2001 and 2002, Hutchinson’s vote ratings moved markedly toward the center of the Senate, but it was too late. Pryor won the election, 54 to 46 percent, and Hutchinson recently joined a K Street law firm as a senior adviser.
Hutchinson’s story serves as a lesson to members of both parties: They run the risk of losing their connection to local political sentiments if they routinely vote their conscience instead of their constituency.
The 2002 NJ ratings show that several members at the conservative and liberal extremes in their chamber may be voting out of step with their districts or states, based on the vote that George W. Bush received in 2000. Nevertheless, all of those members who were up for re-election last year won.
Especially in the House, members in “swing” districts commonly win re-election despite being strongly identified with either the Left or the Right. Some members, such as conservative Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., or liberal Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., have concluded that they can win over a majority of local voters despite antagonizing others. These lawmakers prevail at home partly because the power of incumbency discourages many prospective challengers from waging a campaign and makes it difficult for competitors to raise sufficient funds.
In other cases, lawmakers have managed to project a fairly moderate image back home, even though their votes on Capitol Hill place them at the far end of the political spectrum. For example, new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., ranked among the most conservative senators last year. But the former heart surgeon has prevailed-both with local voters and with Senate GOP colleagues-by taking what appears to be a pragmatic approach in pursuing his personal interest in health care issues.
The Libertarians and Populists
Congress is filled with lots of conservatives, nearly as many liberals, and a shrinking coterie of centrists whose votes often are up for grabs. Less frequently these days are members categorized as populists or libertarians, even though each group has played a distinctive role in American political history.
As heirs to the 19th-century ideology proclaimed by President Andrew Jackson, most populists support an activist government role in economic policy, and many have also been willing to assert a federal role elsewhere, such as in making foreign policy or regulating individual behavior. Libertarians, on the other hand, urge a hands-off government in all areas. In his New Political Dictionary, William Safire describes this group as resisting “government encroachment on individual liberties.” Libertarians believe that public officials should take a laissez-faire approach to business, steer clear of entangling foreign alliances, and stay out of people’s personal lives.
National Journal’s ratings, which examine lawmakers’ votes in three categories-economic, social, and foreign policy-produce a listing of Congress’s libertarian and populist members. Applying the historical standards, populists regularly voted with the liberals on economic issues, but with the conservatives on either social issues or foreign policy. Libertarians, on the other hand, voted conservative on economic issues and liberal on either social or foreign policy.
In the House, all of the 20 members whose 2002 ratings categorized them as libertarians were Republicans. All but two of the 17 populists in the House were Democrats, and about half were Southerners in the tradition of “Old Hickory,” as Jackson was known. The Senate results show three libertarians and one populist-but their partisan affiliations don’t fit the usual pattern, partly because all four of them were among the handful of senators who straddled the center of that chamber on most issues.
A few lawmakers could serve as modern-day icons for each movement. Probably the best example is Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who was the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee in 1988, when he drew 432,000 votes. Paul’s legislative votes leave him increasingly isolated among Republicans. Although he agrees with many of the party’s economic policies, he often parts company on other issues-ranging from his votes against abortion restrictions to his opposition last fall to authorizing the use of U.S. military force against Iraq.
On the other side of the spectrum, Democratic Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, also from Texas, exemplifies populism. He takes an activist approach to some federal spending, notably for farmers, but he is more likely to side with conservatives on social issues such as strict enforcement of criminal laws and vigorous support for the military. Like Paul, Stenholm has sometimes voted independently of his party establishment. During the organizational proceedings for the 108th Congress on January 7, he was one of four House Democrats who did not cast the usually routine vote for their party leader-Nancy Pelosi of California-as speaker.
In recent years, populists and libertarians have become shrinking breeds in both chambers. In 1985, for example, the vote ratings showed 69 populists in Congress (compared with only 18 in 2002) and 64 libertarians (compared with 23 in 2002). The trends reflect political factors such as the decline in the number of Southern Democrats, especially in rural areas, and the concurrent drop in moderate Republicans, particularly in the Northeast.
Senate Twins and Odd Couples
The Senate, where 100 members famously go their own way, has a long tradition of home-state senators from the same party clashing as they separately strive to make their marks. New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert G. Torricelli offer a recent example; their nasty-even profane-battles are now part of Capitol Hill lore.
Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller looked at such pairs of senators in her book Partners and Rivals: Representation in U.S. Senate Delegations. “The incentive to differentiate within a Senate delegation,” Schiller concluded, “is a combination of electoral incentives and institutional forces that push senators in contrasting directions.”
National Journal’s 2002 vote ratings found three pairs of home-state senators of the same party who often went their separate ideological ways. These “odd couples” are Arizona’s Republican senators, conservative Jon Kyl and moderate John McCain; Pennsylvania’s Republican senators, conservative Rick Santorum and moderate Arlen Specter; and Georgia’s Democratic senators, centrist Max Cleland and conservative Zell Miller.
Although Kyl and McCain have scores that are far apart, each has been easily re-elected, and they do not appear to have had significant problems with each other. Cleland, however, lost re-election last November, in part because Republicans unfavorably compared his record on various economic and defense issues with that of Miller, who is more popular at home. A similar conflict could arise between Santorum and Specter, who is up for re-election in 2004. In recent weeks, however, Santorum has served his home-state colleague’s interests by urging fellow Republicans to support Specter, even though conservative Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., has voiced interest in mounting a primary challenge.
Meanwhile, this year’s ratings offer numerous examples of home-state senators with strikingly similar voting records. One such pair of “twins” is Maine’s moderate Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. They rarely disagree on issues, often work together on legislative projects, and cooperatively seek to protect their state’s parochial interests. Likewise, Washington Democrats Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have nearly identical scores, and they have worked closely on national and local issues. At home, each has faced difficult campaigns and has been attacked by Republicans as too liberal.
The partnership of South Dakota Democrats Thomas A. Daschle and Timothy P. Johnson became political fodder for the GOP in last year’s election. Republicans challenged Johnson’s re-election by sometimes attempting to link him in negative terms to Daschle, who was then the majority leader. Although Johnson made sure to establish his independence for local consumption, Daschle worked hard to help him win a narrow contest over then-Rep. John Thune, who had extensive support from President Bush.
In New Hampshire, Republicans Judd Gregg and Bob Smith also ended 2002 with nearly identical vote ratings. But their relationship was not so close. Smith lost his bid for the GOP Senate nomination to then-Rep. John E. Sununu, who won the seat in November. Gregg angered Smith by remaining neutral in the primary.
Also in New England, Massachusetts Democrats John F. Kerry and Edward Kennedy, the 800-pound gorilla of Democratic politics, have had a complex relationship. As Kerry began his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he sought to separate himself from his home-state colleague on some issues, even though their 2002 vote ratings were nearly the same. Still, Kerry was delighted recently when Kennedy endorsed his candidacy, following months of doubt on both sides.
The Democratic senators from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, and the Republican senators from Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison and the now-retired Phil Gramm, have also dealt warily with each other, despite similar voting records.
This year’s ratings also show several home-state senators of different parties whose vote ratings are at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum-yet both continue to enjoy local popularity. Iowa voters have elected Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Charles E. Grassley, and New Mexico voters have elected Democrat Jeff Bingaman and Republican Pete V. Domenici at least four times each, with the knowledge that their legislative votes often cancel each other out. But in those political swing states, the senators can ensure that local interests are protected, regardless of which party is in control.
Staff correspondents David Baumann and Kirk Victor contributed to this report.
Richard E. Cohen National Journal