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Obama-Biden: Familiar Bedfellows...Though You'd Never Know It

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Most of the weekend’s media coverage of Barack Obama’s pick of Joe Biden to be his vice-presidential running mate focused on two competing, though related, angles:

First, that Biden was a good choice because he will shore up Obama’s perceived lack of experience, especially on foreign policy issues; Biden is the current chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

Secondly, commentators (as well as the McCain campaign) have highlighted some telling quotes from Biden during his second presidential bid last year – that Obama is not experienced enough for the White House and that he (Biden) would be honored to run with (or against) McCain for president.

Republicans may – to some degree – also try to make mileage out of Biden’s more trivial verbal gaffes he’s delivered over the years. But those remarks (unlike the ones appearing in the McCain ad) will likely not damage the Obama campaign. The fact that Biden is so affable and generally well regarded – by the media and his fellow Republicans – means it will be pretty easy to dismiss such comments as Biden “shooting from the hip.?

In fact, it is Biden’s easy-going, no-nonsense nature and regular-guy flair that will make him a formidable opponent in the Vice-Presidential debate. Biden’s use of humor and speaking style helps him to mask what should be his biggest weakness as Obama’s runningmate: that Biden is a liberal Senator with a very liberal voting record.

It is well known that National Journal’s 2007 voting record analysis deemed Barack Obama to be the nation’s most liberal Senator. But Biden himself ranked third on that very list – just one one-hundredth of a point behind second place, and just ahead of none other than socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders of Vermont (a Senator so liberal he does not even daydream of becoming President).

The Obama-Biden ticket might rival the most liberal Democratic presidential tickets ever assembled; it is certainly more liberal than the John Kerry/John Edwards ticket in 2004.

Republicans will no doubt try to use this to their advantage, but, with Biden, the criticism and liberal tag just might not stick. In the 2007 Democratic primary presidential debates Biden’s skilled oratory made him appear to be many things – a satirist, a guy you’d want to have a beer with, and, perhaps most importantly, the most conservative candidate on the stage.

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7 Comments


  • The day that somebody tosses 'national journal's liberal rankings' in a sack, ties it shut, drives it to the edge of town, and tosses it from the car window will be a great day for our national discourse.

  • You are aware that National Journal is a fairly respected non-partisan magazine, correct? If so, are you objecting to any discussion of liberal vis-a-vis conservative rankings of officeholders on its face, or simply ones that reveal Obama's voting record to be, shall we say, 'out of the mainstream'?

  • Their 'respected' methodology:

    * Identify a bunch of key votes

    * Assign a 'liberal' and a 'conservative' side to each one, often independent of any particular ideology. Mandatory inspection of shipping containers is 'liberal.' Cutting subsidies to private business to offer student loans is 'liberal.'

    *Tally up each rep's votes, and score them in economic, social, and foreign policy.

    The problems:

    *Officials who are campaigning for national office often miss all but key votes, dramatically skewing their final score. NJ admitted that in 2003 Kerry did not register enough votes to be scored in anything but economic policy. Yet he was still rated as the most liberal in the body - a cudgel that was used repeatedly influence low-information voters on his record.

    *No weighting of the votes as to the ideological importance of each issue.

    *It's simple minded and stupid. We don't need more simple-minded discourse. You admit above that Bernie Sanders is so liberal he couldn't dream of being president. Doesn't the fact that he's 'less liberal' than Obama illustrate the folly of this whole thing? Joe Biden was a champion of the recent bankruptcy reform and an early supporter of the Iraq war, yet he's 'more liberal' than Feingold?

    I would be very happy to discuss Obama's positions or initiatives which are 'out of the mainstream.' Can you name one?

  • A fair rejoinder, Dr. Kruse – but still flawed:

    First, while there are methodological shortcomings with National Journal’s rankings, the overall picture it paints is generally fair (and probably more fair than any characterization of the candidates by rival campaigns or the media at large). You seem to think that because Obama was ranked as the most liberal Senator as opposed to, say, the sixth or seventh most liberal Senator (which might be more accurate) that the whole rankings should be thrown out. Take a look at the rankings of all Senators and you can see it generally gets things right (e.g. the rankings of Republican Senators from Oklahoma (8th and 11th most conservative) are far more to the right than those of the moderate Republican Senators from Maine (46th and 48th most conservative).

    Secondly, while you can dismiss Obama’s #1 liberal ranking in 2007 for missed votes due to his presidential campaign, how can you dismiss his 10th most liberal ranking by NJ in 2006?

    Thirdly, if a weight was employed as to the ideological importance of each issue, it is not clear to me, on the surface, that Obama’s ranking would decline that significantly (this summer’s FISA vote duly noted).

    Fourthly, regarding proof to bolster my claim that National Journal’s high liberal ranking of Obama’s reflects that his views are out of the mainstream, I’ll give you two examples:

    1. Immigration – the vast majority of Americans support enforcement first (and more than 50 percent support completion of the 700-mile wall along the Mexican border; CNN Poll June 2008). Obama, however, backs the widely unpopular ‘path to citizenship’ plan that was aborted in 2006. In fact, far more Americans support prosecution and deportation of illegal immigrations (69 percent, CBS/NYT poll, May 2007) as those who support the path to citizenship.

    2. Domestic oil drilling. More than 2:1 of Americans support drilling for oil and natural gas off the coasts (62 to 28 percent, CBS/NYT poll, August 2008). (Though Obama has recently semi-shifted his long-term opposition to lifting the Congressional ban).

  • Just like old times...

    I’ll give you two examples: ...

    Fair enough. These are two good examples of issues where his views poll badly. (Whether a 12-word yes or no telephone poll accurately represents the views of the populace is debatable in its own right, but let's leave that for another day.) As you point out, though, Obama has signaled a willingness to consider more drilling if it's part of a compromise bill that also pushes alternative energy/conservation issues. And in a recent gallup poll of 'issue importance' immigration ranked dead last of 8 issues. (USAT/Gallup June 15, 2008)

    I could easily name many other issues where Obama's views are perfectly mainstream. The Iraq war is extremely unpopular, preservation of social security, healthcare reform, etc. These are all more important to the electorate than immigration, by the way.

    My point is that far too much coverage of our elections is a shallow, issue free, horse race narrative. Senatorial 'rankings', either liberal or conservative are a perfect example of this. The ranking of 'most liberal' or '3rd most conservative' is a characature that does nothing to inform the electorate. You claimed that the Obama/Biden ticket was the most liberal ever - far more liberal than Kerry/Edwards. What's the basis for this claim? I can't believe there's more than a hair's width distance between any of these 4 candidates. You rightly mentioned Obama's capitulation on the FISA bill, and Obama took a great deal of heat from the Edwards' for refusing to include mandatory enrollment in his healthcare plan.

    I haven't looked at the rankings in a while, but as I recall Clinton was rated 10 or 15 slots lower than Obama. Yet the difference between the two of them boiled down to no more than a couple of votes of peripheral interest at best. Obama, meanwhile, has taken considerable heat from Clinton supporters for caving on liberal issues.

    Given all that, if you believe the ranking of 1st or 3rd most liberal is meaningful and helps to inform the electorate then by all means keep serving it up.

    p.s. No response for Flavor Flav? I even looked up his real name.

  • > You claimed that the Obama/Biden ticket was the most
    > liberal ever

    My actual words were: "The Obama-Biden ticket might rival the most liberal Democratic presidential tickets ever assembled." You see the difference, I presume.

    > I could easily name many other issues where Obama's
    > views are perfectly mainstream. The Iraq war is extremely
    > unpopular

    And yet, despite the war being so unpopular, voters think McCain could handle the Iraq War better than Obama (even in the Upper Midwest -- see my August 26th blog on this topic). So, even if Obama is IN the mainstream, he is not communicating this effectively to the public (a public which, by the way, is now supportive of the surge Obama opposed and is not supporting a quick pull-out of troops as much as they were in the recent past; i.e. there has been a shift towards McCain's policy).

    Regarding illegal immigration, true, it is not at the top of the voters' minds as it was in 2006. Still, a CNN June 2008 poll found it ranked 9th of 15 issues in terms of how important it was to the presidential vote choice (ahead of the environment, foreign trade, gun policy, abortion, race relations, and policies regarding gays and lesbians).

    > p.s. No response for Flavor Flav? I even looked up his real
    > name.

    That did elicit a chuckle, i must confess.

  • and is not supporting a quick pull-out of troops

    I said I'd leave it for another discussion, but I have to repeat my assertion that 12-word poll questions can be a terrible gauge of public opinion. Poll respondents are not in favor of a quick pull out of Iraq. Ergo, you surmise that the public dislikes Obama's position on Iraq. I wonder if the public would be in favor getting our troops out within the next two years (his actual plan.)

    More to the point, I wonder what fraction of respondents would be in favor of keeping our full presence in Iraq for more than two more years. I'd guess support for that scenario might also be tepid. It's all in the question.

    But to summarize my original objection, senate legislation is notoriously middle of the road. It's the great deliberative body, right? To use an abbreviated record of 'yes or no' responses to a collection of centrist legislation, many with no clear ideological dimension, to determine who is most liberal or conservative is fundamentally flawed.

    As I recall you fancy yourself a bit of a sport statistician. I consider a senate vote to be the basketball equivalent of a free throw. Many in the senate would have supported a much more liberal version of a given bill, and others would prefer something much more conservative. Yet each 'yes' and 'no' counts the same in this scheme. Elite NBA players have remarkable offensive skills, but those are not relevant when the player's at the line. It's either a miss or a make, and every one of them counts the same. There's no cross-over reverse dunk from the FT line.

    As GM of an NBA team choosing your next franchise player, would you consider FT% a good indicator of scoring ability? You'd end up with some decent players but you wouldn't get a sniff of the top scorers like LeBron (ranked 112 FT%), Kobe (29), AI (52), or 'Melo (67)

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