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Some Senate Ideological Shifts Under Obama

Entry by rfarbman | Thursday, August 13th, 2009 | Permalink

A post by Joshua Grossman on fivethirtyeight.com makes some interesting observations on shifts in liberal voting in the Senate this year. The chart below shows Senators with the biggest shift away from “progressive” (liberal) votes when compared with their lifetime Senate voting record. The Senator with the biggest shift away from progressive votes is Russ Feingold. As Grossman notes, Feingold often votes against large spending bills and 2009 has been chock full of “progressive” votes approving bailouts, stimulus and other spending. More interesting than Feingold’s proven integrity, however, are the shifts that smell of pure politics.

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Evan Bayh, a potential Presidential candidate for years and on the Vice-President short-list in 2004 and 2008, has suddenly found his voice as a conservative watchdog (“Blue Dog“) within the Democratic party. Without the need to please either potential primary voters or a Presidential nominee, Bayh’s politics have had a major shift. Several other Senators with big shifts away from progressive votes are up for re-election in 2010 and come from conservative leaning states (Dorgan in North Dakota and Lincoln in Arkansas).

John McCain’s shift is also noteworthy. While he started with a lifetime progressive voting record that was certainly modest (except by Senate Republican standards,) John McCain’s progressive vote score has dropped to zero in 2009, from 11.4% lifetime. Although McCain’s past forays into progressive positions may have been genuine and not simply political, he has clearly had a shift since his national office aspirations passed him by. With no need to prove his “Maverick” credentials, and with a new role as a key spokesman for “the loyal opposition,” McCain has been a down-the-line conservative. Still, as a career fiscal conservative, McCain’s votes this year may not have been substantially different at a different time in his career. On immigration, and other controversial issues to come, McCain will have a chance to prove he remains a “maverick” who will buck the party line.

On the flip side are those Senators who have had a more progressive record in 2009 than they have had in the past. Here we can see the possible political reasoning in some of these shifts. As Grossman observes: “Based on his last reelection where the Republican got less than 10% of the vote and Democrat Ned Lamont almost defeated him, ‘independent Democrat’ Joe Lieberman apparently views his left flank as his most vulnerable one and has shifted accordingly.”

Finally, John Kerry spent most of his 24 years in the Senate as a potential future or current candidate for national office. And while his record has always been very liberal, Kerry might previously have hedged slightly to keep him off of the dreaded “most liberal” list. Like McCain, Kerry no longer has to worry about national ramifications and, in his case, can support President Obama at every turn.

Other trends of note: Republicans Bond and Voinovich, neither seeking re-election, have shifted more from straight party votes, becoming slightly more progressive. And after his switch to the Democratic party, Arlen Specter has had a major shift toward more progressive votes. Though still far from a party-line Democrat, Specter is now almost as “progressive” as career Democrats Bayh and Lincoln.

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