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Taking Liberalties

Is Barack Obama a socialist? Well, let's see. His campaign platform makes no mention of proletarian revolution or nationalization of industry, and he trumpets his belief that "America's free market has been the engine of America's great progress. It's created a prosperity that is the envy of the world." Not quite Leninesque. On the other hand, Tom DeLay has made a logically rigorous counter-argument sure to convince second-graders everywhere: "I have said publicly, and I will again, that unless he proves me wrong, he is a Marxist." No word on whether DeLay proceeded to put his fingers in his ears and hum loudly.

John McCain, for his part, says only that he cannot guarantee that Obama is not a socialist. McCain told a crowd in Kansas City this month, "All I know is his voting record…[which is] more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont." Really? No Senate-watcher--or senator--could sincerely believe that Obama is further left than Sanders or other liberal stalwarts like Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold. And yet McCain seems to have facts on his side: After all, Obama stands atop the National Journal rankings as the most liberal member of the Senate. But that just means that National Journal's much-ballyhooed rankings are deeply flawed.

How did Obama, like John Kerry four years ago, achieve this awkward distinction? There are a few different things going on here. First, Obama missed a lot of votes--a third of the 99 votes National Journal included in its analysis. A large group of liberal Democratic senators is separated by just a few votes, and by missing so many, Obama deprived himself of chances to rack up more "conservative" votes. He didn't take public stances on all the votes he missed, but it's clear there are some where he would have strayed from the liberal line, knocking himself off the "most liberal" perch. He missed the December 4 vote on the free trade agreement with Peru, for instance, but publicly supported it, which would have counted as a "conservative" vote.

National Journal tries to compensate for missed votes, but the reality is that there's just no real way this ranking scheme can ever be accurately applied to senators who miss as many votes as presidential candidates do. The magazine recognizes this, since it declines to rank senators who miss more than half the votes in any of its three major issue areas--economic, foreign, and social policy. McCain, who missed more votes than Obama did, is excluded from the rankings for this reason. (If only Obama had been shrewd enough to skip a few more votes!) But once a senator crosses the 50 percent attendance threshold, he or she is immediately included in the rankings, even though the concerns about accuracy don't magically disappear at that point.

A more serious problem is that National Journal's system imputes ideological content to votes that they don't necessarily have. Each vote is scored as either "liberal" or "conservative," depending on how the majority of each caucus voted. But these categorizations often obscure more than they reveal. Sanders and Boxer, for instance--as well as Hillary Clinton--received credit for a "conservative" vote by opposing a proposal by Joe Lieberman to establish an independent Office of Public Integrity for the Senate. It's true that 21 of the 27 senators who supported the plan were Democrats, but the divide fell less along ideological lines than between good-government reformist types (including Republicans like McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Chuck Grassley) and, well, everybody else. There's nothing inherently liberal about favoring public accountability; one can easily imagine the partisan alignment of senators on this vote being quite different had it been Republicans, rather than Democrats, who had just retaken Congress pledging ethics reforms.

The pattern is the same for other "conservative" votes cast by senators to Obama's left. Sanders's only other "conservative" vote was against cloture on the immigration reform bill in June, which he opposed because he thought business interests were pushing for the bill in order to drive down wages. Two of Russ Feingold's four "conservative" votes were against Democratic bills that would have endorsed a partition of Iraq and limited the mission of U.S. troops there to counterterrorism and training missions. These "conservative" votes, like Sanders's on immigration, came because he was further left than the bulk of the Democratic caucus.

Other votes had less to do with ideology per se than with legislative tactics. Second and third on the list of most liberal senators, respectively, are Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who cast just two "conservative" votes, and Joe Biden, who, like Obama, cast just one. Both Biden and Whitehouse were credited with a conservative vote for their support for a bill that would have funded non-embryonic stem-cell research. There's no substantive, ideologically liberal objection to such funding, but many Democrats opposed the bill since it was designed in large part to give conservatives cover to vote against funding for embryonic stem-cell research. Whitehouse and Biden supported both types of stem-cell funding. Is there anything conservative about that? Not really. You could just as easily say that Obama should have been credited with a conservative vote, for opposing what he considered to be an unmerited expansion in the size and scope of government.

Perhaps the most nonsensical result produced by National Journal's system is this: Chris Dodd is ranked as the 23rd most liberal senator, despite casting only four "conservative" votes. One was against the Office of Public Integrity bill. Another was against an obscure amendment that, in a similar vein, would have tightened conflict-of-interest rules for individuals serving on FDA advisory panels (Kerry and Ted Kennedy took the "conservative" side with Dodd). The other two were Iraq votes on measures setting withdrawal timelines for American troops, which Dodd, who during the presidential campaign criticized Obama and Hillary Clinton from the left on Iraq, opposed because he wanted an even more aggressive timeline. And because Dodd was absent for so many votes, the impact of these "conservative" votes was magnified--so the very liberal Dodd landed right in the middle of the Democratic pack, despite not casting a single genuinely conservative vote.

So where does Obama really fall on the spectrum? No vote-ranking system can capture it perfectly, since ideology is as much about legislative priorities and emphases as it is about votes. But here's a rough idea: In his first two years in the Senate, when he didn't miss many votes, Obama ranked 16th and 10th on National Journal's "most liberal" list. A separate and more elaborate ranking system, developed by highly regarded political scientists Jeff Lewis and Keith Poole, found him to be the 11th most liberal senator in 2007 and 21st most liberal in the previous Congress. Obama clearly belongs to the party's liberal wing rather than its centrist contingent--he's essentially said as much--but he's not close to being the Senate's left-most member. (The same was true of Kerry, by the way: He's been ranked 20th and 12th in the past two National Journal rankings. In fact, the palpable absurdity of Kerry's "most liberal" ranking led the magazine to alter its methodology. Under current rules, Kerry would have been disqualified in 2004 for missing too many votes--a cold comfort now.)

That reality, of course, won't stop conservatives from trumpeting the "most liberal" label throughout the fall campaign. There's one problem, though: The public already believes Obama is a liberal, and he's winning nonetheless. According to a June Rasmussen poll, 67 percent of the public views Obama as liberal (Pew's numbers, from May, were similar). By contrast, in May 2004, only 45 percent viewed Kerry as liberal, and not until October did that figure crack the 50 percent mark. As Nate Silver has put it, the public's reaction to the charge that Obama is liberal appears to be, "Well, no shit! We're voting for him anyway." When the electoral fundamentals are as favorable to the Democrats as they are in 2008, conservatives have a steep hill to climb. And so they're working to convince the public not just that Obama is an ordinary liberal, but that he's the single most liberal senator in America. National Journal gave them a great gift. It would be a pity if facts got in their way.

Josh Patashnik is a reporter–researcher at The New Republic.