Who's the most liberal of them all?

The National Journal releases its annual ranking of the most liberal and conservative congressmen -- but is it really accurate?

Published February 27, 2009 10:45PM (EST)

You might have thought award season concluded with the Oscars last Sunday, but that was only a warm-up act for National Journal magazine, which just released its annual rankings of the ideological leanings of members of Congress.

Unlike the Oscars, we won't make you wait three dull, agonizing hours to hear the results you care about. So, without further ado, the winners are:

Most liberal senator: Washington's Patty Murray

Most conservative senator: A four-way tie between Arizona's Jon Kyl, Wyoming's Michael Enzi, Nevada's John Ensign and Wyoming's John Barrasso

As War Room loyalists might remember, the National Journal got plenty of attention last year when they slapped the most liberal label on then-Sen. Barack Obama (John Kerry got the same rating in 2003). Alex expressed some skepticism about the rankings at the time:

[L]ooking at the start of this year's list... we can't help thinking of that other big annual ranking, U.S. News & World Report's college list. And we can't help wondering whether the National Journal's list is just as capricious -- and even, dare we say it, inaccurate -- as that one.

The same thing could be asked this year. For example, the magazine ranks Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., as 37th most liberal, and gives him a 48 liberal rating on foreign policy votes, which, according to the magazine, would actually make him more conservative on the issue than Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

As Lieberman is notoriously hawkish on foreign policy, this would seem to make the results just as questionable as those from previous years. So how did the Journal arrive at these conclusions? Salon spoke with Richard E. Cohen, one of the co-authors of the projections. He explained that the Journal based their ratings on 76 Senate votes and 78 House votes that occurred in 2008. Each vote was designated either liberal or conservative based on which side prevailed on the measure. Then, the Journal weighted each vote according to how closely the result aligned with how Senators and Congressional representatives voted on similar measures during the year.

"In some cases, there were members, including Sen. Feingold, who fit the category of what we called renegade liberals or determined liberals," Cohen said. "In other words, a liberal who sometimes went against their own party because they felt that rank and file Democrats took a position that was more centrist or cooperative with Republicans than a few of these liberals were inclined to be. But in effect, Feingold was bucking his own party on a few votes and that's why he lined up with conservative Republicans. They were on the same side of the issue but for different reasons."

The Journal's metric thus ignores a politician's rhetoric and professed ideology on an issue or even why he or she voted for or against a bill. Glazing over such ideological differences would seem to limit the scope of the magazine's results. Yes, sure, we all love lists and rankings and this one in particular is always fun for political junkies to discuss. But do the results actually mean anything? 

Based on a select set of votes, without any consideration of the rationales for their votes, a senator like Feingold can seem a lot closer politically to someone Lieberman than he actually is. The ratings seem to be a better judge of how frequently a Congressional member votes in accordance with his or her party than the depths of their political persuasion. Which is all to say, that as with the Oscars, it's important to remember that political rankings like this one are a highly subjective business.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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Barack Obama Democratic Party Liberalism Republican Party War Room