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How Liberal is John Kerry?

A new RNC ad claims Kerry is "the most liberal man in the Senate." Actually, his lifetime rating is 11th or lower, depending.

October 19, 2004

Modified: October 19, 2004

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Summary

 

A Republican National Committee ad released Oct. 16 claims that Kerry is "the most liberal man in the Senate." It's true that vote rankings by the politically neutral magazine The National Journal rated Kerry "most liberal" in 2003 and in three earlier years during his first Senate term: 1986, 1988, and 1990. But over his entire career the Journal ranks Kerry the 11th most liberal Senator. And by other rankings he's only a bit left of his party's center.

Analysis

 

The ad's claim that Kerry is the most liberal senator is wrong. And whether he's "the most liberal ever to run for president" is silly. What about Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs?

Republican National Committee Ad

"Risky"

Announcer: John Kerry . . .

The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president.

He voted to cut our military . . . . To severely cut our intelligence agencies . . . . He voted for higher taxes 350 times . . . . And now he wants to be our President . . . .

We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for America . . . a risk we cannot take.

The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

Most Liberal Senator?

The ad's claim that Kerry is "the most liberal man in the Senate" is based on vote rankings by the The National Journal, a politically neutral magazine focusing on policymakers in Washington. The magazine  has been ranking members as "conservative" or "liberal" since 1981 using key votes on economic issues, social issues, and foreign policy.

The Journal did rank Kerry the most liberal senator for 2003, but it's  also true that Kerry  missed 37 of the 62 votes on which the ranking was based due to his campaign schedule. So the Journal assigned Kerry a score only on economic policy for that year -- "a perfect liberal score," in fact. That was based on 19 Kerry votes, though he still missed 13 others on economic policy. The Journal didn't rank Kerry's votes on social issues or foreign policy for 2003 because he cast so few votes on those issues, but noted that he "consistently took the liberal view within the Senate" when he did vote on those issues.

To call Kerry the "most liberal man in the Senate" based on a single year's rating is simply incorrect, however. Over his entire career, the Journal rates Kerry the 11th most liberal Senator. It's doubtful that Kerry would have qualified for the "most liberal" label even during his first Senate term, when was rated #1 for three of the six years:  1986, 1988, and 1990. In each of those years Kerry actually tied for the "most liberal" rating, sharing it with as many as five other senators.

Or is he 22nd? Or 478th?

Other analyses put Kerry farther down the list of liberals. Political science professor Keith T. Poole analyzed 379 roll call votes from 2003 (essentially all votes except those that were unanimous or nearly so). Poole rated 21 senators more liberal, and had Kerry tied with six others for the next place. Based on that, Kerry tied for number 24-1/2.

Poole has been using his method for years. In an analysis of House and Senate voting from 1937-2002, Kerry ranked 478th most liberal out of 3,320 persons who have served in Congress during that time.

Poole concluded that Kerry is "a bit" more liberal than the typical Democratic House or Senate member over the past seven decades, but not an "extreme" liberal.

Poole: Is Senator John Kerry a Liberal? Technically, Yes. Is he the most liberal member of the current or any Senate since the end of World War II? No. Is he an extreme Liberal. (sic) No. In fact he is a bit to the left of the mean of the Senate Democrats serving since 1937.

And by the way, Poole was the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston, a chair named for the former Enron Corp. chairman who was a big donor both to Bush and to his father. Poole is now teaching at the University of California, San Diego. 

Based on Poole's ratings, Brookings Institution authors Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann and Alan Murphy characterized Kerry as being "closer to the center of the Democratic Party than he is to the most liberal senators, including Mr. Kennedy."

Make no mistake -- Kerry is liberal and Bush is conservative by any ranking system. But to characterize Kerry as an extreme liberal or "most liberal" isn't supported by the facts.

Most Liberal Presidential Candidate Ever?

The ad also claims Kerry is "the most liberal person to ever run for President," but that's a ludicrous notion that ignores some of the more colorful figures in American history.

The RNC says they base their claim on vote rankings by Americans for Democratic Action, which describes itself as "America's oldest independent liberal lobbying organization." And indeed, the ADA did rank Kerry overall as more liberal than Walter MondaleHubert HumphreyGeorge McGovernAl Gore, or Bill Bradley , for what that's worth. The ADA rankings are based on only 20 selected votes each year, a fairly narrow measure. And more importantly, the ADA doesn't rank Kerry against presidential candidates who haven't been Members of Congress -- including Michael Dukakis.

And of course, there's no way to rank candidates from earlier in US history, including William Jennings Bryan or Henry Wallace. Bryan was the Democratic candidate in 1896, 1900 and 1908 and favored regulating child labor, granting the vote to women and taxing the incomes of the wealthy -- all extremely liberal views for their time.  Wallace's left-wing views caused Franklin Roosevelt to dump him as his vice president in 1944 (allowing Harry Truman to get the nomination instead), and Wallace then ran as the Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948 advocating equal rights for blacks and higher spending on welfare, education and public works. That would make him a liberal even today, but extremely so for the time.

And what about Eugene V. Debs? The Hoosier firebrand and former locomotive fireman ran for president no fewer than five times -- 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 & 1920 -- the last four times as the nominee of the Socialist Party. In 1908 he named his campaign train the "Red Special." His 1920 campaign was waged from Atlanta Prison, where he was jailed for making a speech against US involvement in World War I.

Recycled Bunkum: 350 Votes for Higher Taxes

As we've reported multiple times before , the claim that Kerry voted 350 times "for higher taxes" is highly misleading. As we said on March 23:

FactCheck.org: But in fact, Kerry has not voted 350 times for tax increases, something Bush campaign officials have falsely accused Kerry of on several occasions. On close examination, the Bush campaign’s list of Kerry’s votes for “higher taxes” is padded. It includes votes Kerry cast to leave taxes unchanged (when Republicans proposed cuts), and even votes in favor of alternative Democratic tax cuts that Bush aides characterized as “watered down.”

More recently, we debunked  the Bush campaign's improved claim that Kerry voted 98 times "for tax increases." That number is still padded, including 43 votes on budget measures that only set targets and don't actually legislate tax increases, as well as multiple votes regarding an individual bill.

Sources

 

Richard E. Cohen, "2003 Vote Ratings - How They Measured Up, How the Vote Ratings are Calculated, Key Votes Used to Calculate the Ratings," The National Journal, 28 Feb 2004.

Charles Green, "When a Rating Becomes a Talking Point," The National Journal, 30 Aug 2004.

Keith Poole, "108th Senate Rank Ordering," accessed 19 Oct 2004.

Keith Poole, "Is John Kerry a Liberal?" 13 Oct 2004.

Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann, Alan Murphy, and Paul Sahre, "Where Do They Stand?" The New York Times, 26 July 2004.

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