Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Is John Kerry Liberal? Is The Pope Catholic?

There is a continuing, somewhat bizarre attempt in some quarters to craft arguments that John Kerry is not "liberal." Often these attempts involve the use of some pseudo-objective "measure" of liberalism: what one might call a "liberalometer." Although there are many contenders, the liberalometer of Keith T. Poole that purports to measure liberal/conservative votes "objectively" by simply counting every single vote equally, probably takes first prize for specious pseudo-objectivity. In the Poole liberalometer, it appears a vote for nationalization of the health care system would count the same as a vote to fund the Washington Monument.

It ought to be obvious that determining whether a government operative, such as a legislator or judge, is "liberal" or "conservative" in any meaningful sense requires some evaluation of "key votes." The recent vote of the Massachusetts supreme court to impose same-sex marriage on that state means a lot more in determining whether the voting judges are "liberal" than some pseudo-objective equation of that vote with another one in which the same judges voted with a supposedly conservative bloc in a case decided under, say, the Uniform Commercial Code. Whether one loves or hates the same sex marriage decision, it was a key vote - in a way that some court decision not to enforce a bank's guaranty despite its suretyship waiver was not. The same is true for legislators such as Senator Kerry.

Counting all votes equally is nothing more than a concealed determination that every vote is a "key vote" - and therefore does not avoid the problem. But the Poole measure is highly disingenuous, all the more so for its specious claim to "objectivity." There will always be room to challenge any determination of what is a "key vote" - one simply has to look at how the determination was made and ask if one agrees with it. That task simply cannot be avoided - politics cannot be reduced that much. [UPDATE: Tom Maguire cogently previously noted this problem with the Poole methodology. That methodology may be good for some academic purposes, but it is a terrible liberalometer.]

But those who argue that Senator Kerry is not "liberal" don't do that. Instead, they push around lots other pseudo-objective criteria. To make matters worse for the pseudo-objectivists, Senator Kerry has a nasty habit of repudiating his votes - or reconstruing them to mean something they did not in fact mean. In this way, for example, John Kerry maintains that he did not vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He says he only voted to authorize the President to check things out with the UN and other people and to invade if there was nothing else that could be done .. bla, bla bla. Then there is his highly tenuous or outright rejected relationship with his "conservative" positions - including his forced acceptance of the 1996 welfare reform bill.

What happens when one tries to sort out key votes with Senator Kerry? Well, this is what happened in three major evaluations by organizations who have a real stake in getting the matter right:

[Congressional Quarterly] found that in 2003, Kerry voted with Kennedy 93 percent of the time on roll-call votes in which both men were present. While that might seem like a lot, it was, historically, a rather low number for Kerry; who voted with Kennedy 100 percent of the time on key votes in 2001, 1999, 1998, 1993, 1992, 1989, 1988, 1987, 1986, and 1985, according to a Republican analysis of CQ's designated key votes from those years.

There are other indicators that Kerry's liberalism, when he is present for votes, matches or even exceeds Kennedy's and those of other liberal icons in the Senate. For example, Kerry has earned a lifetime rating of 93 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which selects key votes each year and rates lawmakers according to a perfect liberal score of 100. Kerry's rating puts him in league with Kennedy, whose lifetime score is a slightly less-liberal 88, and other liberals like Vermont's Patrick Leahy, with 93, and California's Barbara Boxer, with 96.

Viewed from the other side of the ideological divide, Kerry has a lifetime rating of six from the conservative American Conservative Union, which uses a similar methodology to rate lawmakers according to a perfect conservative score of 100. Kerry's rating is the same as Leahy's and New York's Charles Schumer's, although it is slightly less liberal than Kennedy's lifetime rating of three.

So let's recap: The non-ideological National Journal, CQ,the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and the conservative American Conservative Union all agree that Senator John Kerry is very, very liberal. He repeatedly shows up as more liberal than other Senators who are almost universally considered very liberal. Or are we going to see arguments that Senator Boxer and Kennedy are not all that liberal? Some skeptics argue that Senator Kerry is not liberal and, at least implicitly, that they don't like the determinations of "key votes" made by any of the National Journal, CQ, the Americans for Democratic Action or the American Conservative Union. Fine. Those skeptics are free to formulate their own lists of "key votes" and submit it for public evaluation as somehow more perceptive and persuasive than the others. But, of course, with the notable exception of the grotesque Poole liberalometer, the skeptics don't present their own list because the chances of every one of these organizations - liberal, non-partisan and conservative - all getting it so wrong even though they all have very good reasons and the resources to get it right, are remote.

Yes, there are Howlers! being committed here. But the howling parties are those who argue that John Kerry has not been liberal - very, very liberal.


STILL MORE: Yes, yes, I remember now - Herr Doktorprofessor Paul Von Krugman also had something confused to say on this topic. Look, if Paul Krugman is still "America's most dangerous liberal columnist" or whatever he was, it must have something to do with his driving. Or maybe he's been fooling around with explosives in his basement. Or maybe his being "dangerous" has something to do with the risk of one's being hit by flying cats around Herr Doktorprofessor's Princeton residence. But it certainly can't have anything to do with what he writes in the Times recently - that stuff trickles through the head of the body politic like water through a sieve.

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