The National Journal released its annual ranking of how liberal or conservative Senators are on Thursday, January 31, 2008. Interestingly Obama was ranked the most "liberal" Senator and Clinton was ranked the 16th most liberal. In 2004, the National Journal ranked John Kerry the most liberal Senator, and also ranked John Edwards as pretty liberal also.
Now, in the 2006 rankings Obama had a liberal score of 86 and Clinton had a liberal score of 70.2. Those scores meant that Obama was ranked 10th most liberal and Clinton was ranked 32nd most liberal. In 2007, however, Obama moves up to number one and Clinton moves up to number 16. Quite a jump.
So how does the National Journal come up with this ranking system? Well, the National Journal doesn't base its ranking on every vote. According to the Journal the rankings are based on what it calls 99 key votes.
If you look at the supposed "key votes" you find that 26 of them are proposals to limit debate on various bills, and seven of them are proposals to table various bills. Thus, a third of the votes aren't votes on legislation at all. Further, the list is inherently subjective. An example is the very first vote listed, which was a proposal to set up an Office of Public Integrity. Apparently, according to the Journal, if you are in favor of enforcing ethics laws against Senators, you are a liberal.
Now, how did the National Journal get into the ranking business? Well, it was a brainchild of Bill Schneider, who is a political commentator on CNN. This is how the Journal explains Schneider's work on these rankings:
The ratings system -- devised in 1981 under the direction of William Schneider, a political analyst and commentator, and a contributing editor to National Journal -- also assigns "composite" scores, an average of the members' issue-based scores. In 2007, Obama's composite liberal score of 95.5 was the highest in the Senate. Rounding out the top five most liberal senators last year were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., with a composite liberal score of 94.3; Joseph Biden, D-Del., with a 94.2; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with a 93.7; and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., with a 92.8.
So where does Bill Schneider come from? Well, among other things, he is described by Wikipedia as a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI is then described by Wikipedia in the following language:
The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is a conservative think tank, founded in 1943. It is associated with neoconservative domestic and foreign policy views. According to the institute its mission is "to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism — limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate." AEI is an independent, non-profit organization. It is supported primarily by grants and contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. It is located in Washington, D.C.
AEI has emerged as one of the leading architects of the second Bush administration's public policy. More than twenty AEI alumni and current visiting scholars and fellows have served either in a Bush administration policy post or on one of the government's many panels and commissions.
So basically what we have is a ranking system devised by a conservative which is used by a supposed "non-partisan" media company to produce rankings that are used every four years to tar Democratic presidential nominees with a "liberal" brush. To make it even more interesting, the system is based on a very subjective set of votes with the liberal-conservative position subjectively set by the National Journal.
The ranking system is then released to the public and picked up the media with little or no explanation of what the rankings represent or how they were determined. Yep, sounds real objective to us.