Ignoring change after Kerry rating, FactCheck.org claimed National Journal has used same "rigorous process ... since 1981"

››› ››› BRIAN FREDERICK

In an "analysis" of Sen. Barack Obama's response to a question about being rated the "most liberal senator" of 2007 by National Journal, FactCheck.org deputy director Viveca Novak claimed that "[t]he nonpartisan public policy magazine's analysis of the votes and the designation of 'liberal' and 'conservative' positions was done according to a rather rigorous process the publication has been using since 1981." In fact, National Journal editor Charles Green has admitted that the publication changed the methodology it had used in its 2003 ratings after it determined that the methodology that resulted in a "most liberal" senator ranking for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had been flawed.

In a February 12 "analysis" of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's (IL) response to a question during a February 11 Politico-WJLA/ABC 7 interview about being rated the "most liberal senator" of 2007 by National Journal, FactCheck.org deputy director Viveca Novak falsely claimed that "[t]he nonpartisan public policy magazine's analysis of the votes and the designation of 'liberal' and 'conservative' positions was done according to a rather rigorous process the publication has been using since 1981." In fact, National Journal editor Charles Green has admitted that the publication changed the methodology it had used in its 2003 ratings after it determined that the methodology that resulted in a "most liberal" senator ranking for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry had been flawed. In addition, the FactCheck.org analysis asserted that "Obama made it appear that his 'most liberal' ranking by the nonpartisan National Journal was awarded because he voted to create an outside ethics office for the Senate." However, Obama specifically stated during the Politico-WJLA/ABC 7 interview that his vote for an Office of Public Integrity was "an example" of the legislative votes that National Journal considered in coming up with that rating.

In a January 31 "explanation of the vote ratings" posted on the National Journal website, Green stated that after the magazine rated Kerry the most liberal senator in 2003, "[w]e made one change." He explained:

Q: Have you made any changes in the vote rating system since then?

Green: We made one change. We decided that in order for a member of Congress to receive a composite rating, he or she needed to vote often enough to qualify for scores in each of the three issue categories -- economic policy, social policy, and foreign policy -- that we measure. In Kerry's case, he didn't vote often enough in 2003 to merit scores in the social-policy and foreign-affairs categories. His overall ranking was based on his score in the economic category.

As to why National Journal made the change, Green stated: "We didn't want to continue giving composite scores to members of Congress who missed most of the votes we selected." Consequently, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (AZ) was not given a composite score in the 2007 ratings "because he missed too many votes," Green stated. Finally, when asked, "Why didn't you make the change before Kerry's rating was announced?" Green answered:

The method we used to give Kerry a composite score was the method we had used in the past. To change the rules in the middle of the game, so to speak, after we learned Kerry's ranking, would have exposed us to charges of manipulating our rules for partisan reasons. We instituted the change the following year, before we knew the scores of any lawmakers.

From Novak's February 12 entry on FactCheck.org, with contributions by staff writer Justin Bank, editor Lori Robertson, and research intern D'Angelo Gore:

Obama made it appear that his "most liberal" ranking by the nonpartisan National Journal was awarded because he voted to create an outside ethics office for the Senate. Actually, there were 99 votes that formed the basis of the magazine's analysis.

[...]

Liberal in More Ways Than One

Obama was asked about a recent ranking of senators by the National Journal that rated him the most liberal in 2007, and whether voters could rely on him to reach across the aisle and get things done. His response:

Obama: Well, first of all, not to grouse against the National Journal, but let me give you an example of why I was rated the most liberal was because I wanted an office of public integrity that stood outside of the Senate, and outside of Congress, to make sure that you've got an impartial eye on ethics problems inside of Congress. Now, I didn't know that it was a liberal or Democratic issue. ... So that's the problem with some of these ratings -- how they score things. It uses categories that I think don't make sense to a lot of Americans.

Obama's answer could mislead voters. Although we agree that rankings and labels sometimes don't have much substance behind them, Obama cited just one of 99 Senate votes selected by National Journal's reporters and editors for the study. The nonpartisan public policy magazine's analysis of the votes and the designation of "liberal" and "conservative" positions was done according to a rather rigorous process the publication has been using since 1981. Most of the votes chosen had to do with the minimum wage, Medicare prescription drug premiums, renewable energy, health insurance for children, immigration, embryonic stem cell research, the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general and other issues on which it's not too surprising to see a divide between liberals and conservatives.

Clinton ranked 16th most liberal in the Senate, although she actually differed from Obama on just two of the 99 selected votes -- the creation of an outside ethics office, and allowing certain immigrants to stay in the country while their visas were being renewed. A comparison of Obama and Clinton over the last three years (the time that Obama has been in the Senate) shows that Obama had an average composite "liberal" score of 88, which is higher than Clinton's average of 77.6.

From the Politico-WJLA/ABC 7 forum on February 11:

OBAMA: Well, first of all, not to grouse against the National Journal, but let me give you an example of one of the reasons I was rated the most liberal was because I wanted an office of public integrity that stood outside of the Senate to -- and outside of Congress to make sure that you've got an impartial eye on ethics problems inside of Congress. Now, I didn't know that that was a liberal, Democratic issue. I thought that was a good government issue that a lot of Republicans out there would like to see. So that's the problem with some of these ratings


how they score things. It uses categories that don't make sense to, I think, a lot of Americans.
Posted In
Government, The Senate
Network/Outlet
National Journal Group, Factcheck.org
Person
Viveca Novak
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