What the National Journal “Liberal” Ranking Really Means

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On Thursday afternoon, political reporters across the country received a gushing email from the Republican National Committee, with a big picture of Barack Obama next to the words “Obama: Most Liberal Senator In 2007.” It was a reference to the National Journal, Washington’s big-deal political trade magazine, which released its annual bipolar rankings of the Senate. The results: Hillary Clinton was the 16th most liberal member of the Senate. Barack Obama was #1.

For those Democrats who still have nightmares from the 2004 election, the importance of this fact is unmistakable. Back then, Republicans repeatedly tarred nominee John Kerry with the fact that he had been ranked as the #1 most liberal member of Senate in 2003. Could it all be happening again? If Obama is the nominee, you can bet on it. In point of fact, both Obama and Clinton are relatively liberal members of the Senate. But “most liberal”? That sounds a bit like being the drunkest guy at a Superbowl party—not something to be proud of in a general election.

The more interesting question, though, is, Does this “most liberal” ranking actually mean anything? And the answer, once you look at the National Journal’s methodology, is not really. I say this only because I got an email from Dave Meyer, a researcher here in DC, who is one of the many usually-unnamed people who toil behind the scenes in Washington brokering in information. Here is what Meyer wrote:

I actually browsed through the scorecard National Journal used to determine the ranking. There are precisely two scored votes where Obama took the liberal position and Clinton took the conservative. The first was Joe Lieberman’s S.Amdt. 30 to S.Amdt. 3 to S.1 The Amendment was “To establish a Senate Office of Public Integrity.” Here’s the roll call of the 27-71 vote. Joining Obama on the “liberal” side — meaning the side in support of Joe Lieberman’s amendment — were Republicans Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe Chuck Grassley, and John McCain.

The second was Jeff Bingaman’s S.Amdt. 1267 to S.Amdt.1150 to S.1348, the Immigration Reform bill. The Amendment was “To remove the requirement that Y-1 nonimmigrant visa holders leave the United States before they are able to renew their visa.” Here’s the roll call of the 41-57 vote (60 votes needed to pass, so it failed by 19). Joining Obama on the “liberal’ side were Richard Shelby, Chuck Hagel, and Tom Coburn.

So there you have it. Obama is more liberal than Clinton because he voted with John McCain, the most likely Republican nominee, and Tom Coburn, one of the Senate’s most conservative members. Ain’t political rankings a wonderful thing.