"Most Liberal Senator"
Coming soon to a Republican Talking Point near you:
National Journal has published its 2007 ratings of U.S. Senators, and lo and behold, Barack Obama is dubbed the "Most Liberal Senator."
This brought back some memories for me, because four years ago I got involved in a complex and heated argument with the NatJo folks (largely offline) about the same designation awarded to Sen. John Kerry, who by a strange coincidence, was also running for president that year.
I discovered that the methodology for these ratings involved some very questionable rules. One involved ignoring missed votes (extremely common among presidential candidates), with the even more questionable exception of eliminating whole categories of votes if the Senator missed an arbitrary percentage of them, making the rating then depending on whatever was left. Another problem was the exceptionally subjective definition of "liberal" and "conservative." Party-line votes, whatever their substance, were defined as ideological, and in some cases (e.g., votes to resist GOP tax cuts for violating budget rules) votes that united "liberals" with some conservatives were labeled "liberal" entirely.
I haven't had a chance to look at NatJo's current methodology--beyond noting they've now decided against rating Senators with a large number of total absences, a practice that exempts John McCain (but not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton) from any rating or label, and which, if it had been employed in 2004, would have made John Kerry "Unrated" instead of "the Most Liberal Senator."
But fortunately, Steve Benen at Political Animal has leapt onto these ratings like a panther, and made a lot of the points I've just made above, with updated examples. Meanwhile, Brian Beutler has the best general description of the NatJo system: "This is philistinism masquerading as social science--it's the U.S. News College Guide of Washington politics."
Much of this controversy, of course, could be avoided if National Journal and others who do these ratings would simply use the term that the senators they are describing actually apply to themselves: "progressive." "Liberal" has of course been contaminated by many years and many billions of dollars of stereotyping abuse by the Right. Moreover, it's confusing because it means something entirely different in the international context: more like "conservative," in fact. "Conservatives" would undoubtedly howl if the National Journal decided to provide them with a label they rejected, such as "Reactionary" or "Authoritarian" or "Bushian." Why the double standard?
Let's hope these ratings receive the cold shoulder they deserve.