Richard E. Cohen
In the already-combative 2008 presidential campaign, most of the candidates in each party are members of Congress, and they have cast many hundreds — even thousands — of votes. Their legislative track records leave the White House contenders open to plenty of pointed questions from voters and the news media — and provide opponents with endless opportunity for mischief and attacks.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for instance, has been struggling to defend her vote on October 11, 2002, in favor of the resolution authorizing the use of U.S. military force in Iraq. “If I had known then what I know now, I would never have voted to give this president that authority,” she has said repeatedly. But Clinton has been unwilling to satisfy those who want her to “apologize” or to acknowledge that she erred. “If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from,” she said in New Hampshire on February 17.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., meanwhile, has run into trouble for a vote that he did not cast. He was absent when the Senate held a rare Saturday session on February 17 to take up the House-passed resolution opposing President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq. During an appearance in South Carolina, McCain called the vote “a charade, a joke, a publicity stunt on the part of the Democrats.” But Democrats hammered him nevertheless. “McCain’s decision to campaign instead of vote offers the American people an unflattering glimpse at an establishment candidate who will do anything to win the Republican primary,” a Democratic National Committee spokesman said.
As the campaign intensifies, the lawmakers-turned-presidential-wannabes will be put on the spot to explain their votes on countless topics: tax cuts, Medicare coverage, abortion rights, immigration policy, defense spending, foreign aid, and on and on. “A member of Congress’s history of roll-call votes is an opposition researcher’s gold mine,” said Neil Newhouse, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican consulting firm based in Alexandria, Va. “Anybody with a voting record is vulnerable.” His presidential campaign clients have included Bob Dole, who was forced to defend 27 years of Senate votes, and George W. Bush, who was never a legislator.
Anita Dunn, a veteran campaign strategist at the Washington-based Democratic firm Squier Knapp Dunn, said that the public has grown “increasingly skeptical about the single vote plucked out of thin air in a campaign.” But “a pattern of voting is more problematic,” she said. “And when the words come directly from a candidate’s mouth, voters are less skeptical.”
Both Newhouse and Dunn pointed to the now-infamous explanation given by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., during the 2004 presidential campaign, when he tried to clarify his opposition to an Iraq war spending bill by noting, “I voted for it before I voted against it.” The current crop of presidential candidates and their handlers, the operatives warned, must be prepared to avoid such blunders. “Candidates should make sure that they do a thorough review of their record before they begin a campaign … and plan accordingly,” Dunn said. According to Newhouse, “It’s hard to rebut the facts about a vote. Candidates have to respond more broadly.”
National Journal’s congressional vote ratings for 2006 demonstrate that plenty of ammunition will be available during the presidential campaign. The computer-assisted ratings, which NJ has prepared annually since 1981, used 82 key votes in the Senate and 95 in the House to measure the members of each chamber on an ideological scale.
Of the four Democratic senators who are running for president, Barack Obama of Illinois had the most liberal score in 2006. He was followed by Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Joseph Biden of Delaware, and Clinton. In fact, Clinton was markedly more moderate in 2006 than Obama, who was the 10th-most-liberal senator. The sole Democratic presidential candidate from the House, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, had a strongly liberal voting record. (See chart, p. 22.)
Among the three Republican senators who have formally declared their candidacy for the White House, or are seriously considering a run, the most conservative in 2006 was Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Close behind him was Sam Brownback of Kansas, while McCain was more moderate. Of the three House Republicans who have launched long-shot presidential bids, Duncan Hunter of California was the most conservative, followed by Tom Tancredo of Colorado and the maverick Ron Paul of Texas. (See chart, p. 24)
What follows are highlights of those 11 candidates’ 2006 scores, plus a look at their histories in NJ’s vote ratings over the course of their legislative careers. (For an explanation of the key votes used to calculate this year’s ratings, see pp. 42-47. The vote ratings from 1995-2006 are available online at national journal.com.)
Obama: During his two years in the Senate, Obama has been among its more liberal members. In the 152 Senate votes that were used in NJ’s ratings in 2005 and 2006, he voted against the liberal position only 12 times. Many of those votes dealt with national security issues or presidential nominations. Perhaps his most high-profile split with liberal orthodoxy came on the second vote that he cast in the Senate, to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State; 13 Democrats opposed her nomination. Obama sided with conservatives three times on Bush’s judicial nominees: He voted in 2005 for cloture on Priscilla Owen and to confirm Thomas Griffith, and in 2006 for cloture on Brett Kavanaugh.
Obama has sided with conservatives on several anti-terrorism issues, including a vote authorizing the construction of a new prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and two early-2006 votes on extending the USA PATRIOT Act. And he parted company with Senate liberals on three foreign-policy votes last year by opposing a requirement that Bush withdraw all troops from Iraq by July 2007, and by supporting a free-trade agreement with Oman and a nuclear energy agreement with India.
Obama split with liberals on only two economic votes, both in 2005: He voted to give the federal courts jurisdiction over most class-action lawsuits, and he backed the energy bill conference report. In 2006, he was one of 13 Senate Democrats with a perfect liberal score on economic issues. Obama’s 12 conservative votes in the 2005-2006 ratings included four on which Clinton sided with the liberals: She voted against class-action lawsuit reform, the energy bill, the Griffith nomination, and cloture on Kavanaugh.
Although Obama’s “lifetime average” composite score in NJ’s vote ratings is the most liberal of the current presidential candidates who serve in Congress, the results give him some evidence to assert that he has not been an ideologue. Fifteen senators were more liberal than him in 2005, and nine were more liberal than him in 2006. In each case, the more liberal senators included Obama’s home-state colleague, Richard Durbin, the Democratic whip.
Dodd: The vote ratings for Dodd — the seventh-most-senior Senate Democrat, who is now chairman of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee — ranged widely during his first two terms. From 1981 to 1984, he consistently scored among the most liberal senators. Although never No. 1, he was among the top 10 liberals during each of those years. He then moved measurably toward the center. In 1991 and 1992, his composite score placed him among the most conservative third of Senate Democrats, especially on foreign policy.
Since that time, his ratings have shown a remarkable consistency, placing Dodd — who suffered a one-vote loss to Tom Daschle in a bid to become minority leader in 1995 — near the center of Senate Democrats. From 1994 to 2005, with one exception, his composite liberal scores ranged narrowly between 75.5 and 81.5. During that same period, his rating on foreign issues was often toward the center, while his scores on social issues were toward the left.
In 2006, as Dodd was preparing to launch his presidential bid, he earned his second-most-liberal composite score since 1984. He had a nearly perfect liberal score on social issues, except for his vote to approve the conference report to extend the PATRIOT Act. As in the past, he was more centrist on foreign policy, where he parted company with liberals by opposing “amnesty” for terrorists in Iraq, a troop withdrawal deadline in Iraq, and setting conditions on the use of cluster bombs, and by supporting the nuclear energy pact with India.
Clinton: A review of Clinton’s vote-ratings scores shows a clear-cut shift. In the first three years after her election in 2000, when she focused her attention chiefly on her home state, she was twice among the most liberal senators: She ranked 12th in 2002 and tied for seventh the following year. In each year, Clinton had a perfect liberal score on social issues; she had a perfect liberal rating on economic issues in 2002.
Since then, with the prospect of a presidential bid looming, Clinton has moved notably toward the right among Senate Democrats. Only 12 Democrats had a more conservative score in 2004, and 12 were to her right again last year; most of them were from the South or West. In those two recent cases, her ratings were close to those of Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., whose growing independence has riled many of the party faithful. Although her centrism could prove useful if she wins the nomination, Clinton is already taking flak from liberals who are unhappy with her votes, especially her refusal to second-guess her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq war.
Overall, Clinton has been more consistently liberal on social issues and more conservative on foreign policy. Her foreign-policy splits with liberals during the past two years have included supporting the Rice nomination, funds for television broadcasts to Cuba, the Guantanamo prison, the Oman trade deal, and the India nuclear agreement, and opposing a troop withdrawal deadline in Iraq and setting conditions on the use of cluster bombs. On social policy, she sided with conservatives in 2005 and 2006 only on three PATRIOT Act votes and on cloture on the Owen nomination.
Biden: Like Dodd, Biden inevitably will be identified by his long career in the Senate, where he was first elected in 1972 and now chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. And Biden’s vote ratings, like Dodd’s, reveal some peaks and valleys. His most liberal phase was between 1986 and 1992, when he was among the 11 most-liberal senators three times; he had perfect liberal scores on foreign policy during those three years. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Biden ran for president in 1988, and he presided as chairman of the Judiciary Committee during some epic showdowns with Republican presidents.
At other times, Biden has been more of a centrist. Four times from 1993 to 1998 his composite liberal score fell to the 60s — most notably in 1997, when only three of the 45 Democratic senators had a more conservative rating. That year, as often has been the case for Biden, his score on social policy was more conservative than his rating on economic or foreign issues.
More recently, Biden has fit regularly near the center of Senate Democrats — similar to Dodd, but generally slightly less liberal. In a contrast to his career pattern, he was more conservative in 2006 on foreign policy than in the other areas. He parted company with Senate liberals in supporting confirmation of Michael Hayden as CIA director and the India nuclear energy deal, and in opposing the troop withdrawal deadline in Iraq and setting conditions on cluster bombs. Biden had a perfect liberal score last year on economic policy.
Kucinich: First elected to the House in 1996 from a largely blue-collar district, Kucinich spent his early years in the conservative wing of his party, especially on social policy, where he voted against abortion rights. From 2001 to 2003, he moved more toward the center of House Democrats.
Since 2004, however, when he persistently pursued a presidential bid against long odds, Kucinich has been among the most liberal House members — including on social policy, where he shifted his stance to support abortion rights. In 2005, he was the 20th-most-liberal member of the House, with a perfect liberal score on foreign policy and three liberal defections on the 83 House economic and social votes that year.
Brownback: Although Brownback is the most conservative of the Senate’s presidential candidates overall, his vote ratings in recent years have been moving toward the middle. When he entered the Senate in 1997, after compiling a relatively centrist voting record during two years in the House, he made his mark as one of seven Republicans who had a perfect conservative voting record that year — along with such firm ideologues as then-Sens. John Ashcroft of Missouri, Phil Gramm of Texas, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. During each of the next three years, Brownback ranked as either the 14th- or 15th-most-conservative among the 50-plus GOP senators.
Since then, Brownback’s composite scores have made him more of a centrist among Republicans, though with some twists and turns. In 2003, for example, his foreign-policy rating was near the center of the Senate, but he had a perfect conservative record on social issues. Last year, by contrast, his rating on social policy was near the Senate’s center, but he had a nearly perfect conservative record on economic issues. The chief reason for Brownback’s moderate score on social issues in 2006 was that he supported the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill — and opposed most amendments to the measure — even though many conservatives strongly objected to the bill.
With Brownback portraying himself in his presidential campaign as a “compassionate conservative” with a “pro-family” agenda, some of his past Senate votes could raise questions from potential supporters and force him to explain his actions.
McCain: Like Brownback’s, McCain’s vote ratings have moved significantly toward the center during his Senate career. In the first eight years after his 1986 election, McCain was typically among the more conservative GOP senators. His composite score placed him 14th among conservatives in 1989, and eighth in 1994, with perfect conservative scores on economic issues each of those years and on social issues in 1994.
Starting with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995, McCain moved steadily away from hard-right advocates. In 2000, during his bitter showdown with Bush for the GOP presidential nomination, his scores in each of the three issue areas were much closer to the center of the Senate. That trend continued during the Bush presidency. In 2004, McCain was the third-most-liberal Senate Republican (behind only Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine), with moderate scores in each of the three issue areas that positioned him virtually at the center of the chamber.
In the two years since then, McCain has pulled back slightly from the center, with a more conservative score on social issues in 2005 and on economic issues in 2006. But he has remained among the 10 most-moderate Senate Republicans. He opposed some tax cuts and supported efforts to limit greenhouse-gas emissions in 2005, for example, and he co-sponsored the comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2006. As McCain makes a direct appeal to Bush supporters in the 2008 campaign, observers will be watching the impact of these votes.
Hagel: Hagel’s recent scores have placed him with Brownback and McCain among moderate Senate Republicans. But, unlike those two, Hagel does not have an earlier history as a strong conservative. Interestingly, his composite score has been more conservative than McCain’s in nine of the 10 years they have served together. In 2006, for instance, when McCain was the 46th-most-conservative senator (and Brownback was 34th), Hagel was 29th.
Hagel sided with conservatives — and against McCain — on several issues last year, including support for a trust fund to compensate asbestos victims and for research and development to modify the Trident ballistic missile, plus opposition to “pay-as-you-go” budget rules, negotiating authority for the federal government on Medicare prescription drug prices, and funding for embryonic-stem-cell research.
Hunter: Among the three House Republicans who have declared a presidential bid, Hunter has the most-conservative vote ratings overall. Since entering the House in 1981, his scores have typically been toward the conservative side in each of the three categories. In 1987 and 1988, for instance, his composite scores placed him among the most conservative members, and he had perfect conservative scores on social and foreign-policy issues each year. He had a similar pattern in 1994, with perfect conservative scores on economic and social issues.
After Republicans gained House control in 1995, Hunter’s scores moderated a bit, partly because he took a more protectionist approach to some economic and foreign issues. That trend has abated in the past two years, and he has largely returned to the conservative fold.
Tancredo: Like Hunter, Tancredo began his House career on a conservative note, but his vote ratings have moved consistently toward the middle. In 1999, when Tancredo was a freshman, only 19 Republicans had a more conservative composite score, and he had a perfect conservative rating on economic issues.
But in 2003, his scores moved markedly toward the center in each of the three categories; his composite score was close to the House’s center. That year, Tancredo was one of what NJ called the “maverick conservatives,” a shifting group of about 15 House Republicans who bucked GOP leaders and opposed major legislation that they viewed as insufficiently conservative. Examples included that year’s bill to provide Medicare prescription drug coverage to seniors and the costly omnibus appropriations measure; Tancredo opposed those bills, effectively aligning with most Democrats and the liberal position.
In 2004, when the House GOP’s legislative agenda had few hot-button measures, Tancredo’s vote ratings returned to the more conservative zone. But in the past two years he moved left again. In 2005, his scores on economic and foreign policy were within a few points of the House’s center. And he had a similar foreign score in 2006, demonstrating occasional isolationism on the Bush administration’s interventionist foreign policy. As the House GOP’s agenda moved Tancredo’s way last year on his signature issue of a restrictive immigration policy, his score on social issues was more in sync with those of other Republicans.
Paul: As a self-styled libertarian (he was the Libertarian Party candidate for president in 1988), Paul has become a leader of the Republicans who are willing to challenge what they see as their party’s excessive spending and regulation. His voting record can be characterized as a more extreme version of “maverick conservatism.” He has become so willing to shun Republican policies that his voting record increasingly resembles that of a mainstream Democrat.
In recent years, Paul’s composite score has grown more liberal, especially as his foreign-policy votes have increasingly demonstrated his hands-off approach to international issues. In 2006, for example, he opposed funds for drug interdiction in Colombia, U.S. intelligence activities, missile defense systems, some foreign aid, and the war in Iraq. For now, it seems unlikely that Paul will become a serious contender for the Republican nomination. If he does, he will probably have to explain many of his House votes.