By David Epstein
Barack Obama’s run for the White House is premised on his image as a transformational leader, one who will move the country beyond partisanship and enact sweeping changes. He promises to be more than a mere politician, to unify the electorate and their representatives, and to remake national politics at a fundamental level.
Given the boldness of these claims – and Obama’s recently conferred front-runner status by the media – it is reasonable to inquire as to their foundation. After all, no president in history has been able to accomplish what Obama promises, and those elected more on image than policy expertise and leadership have not had stellar results. Is there anything in Obama’s political history that would lead us to believe he can succeed where all others before him have failed?
Certainly his tenure in the U.S. Senate gives very little support. He has been a cautious senator so far, hewing to the Democratic party line on most votes and keeping his sweeping rhetoric in check. After criticizing the Iraq War harshly from the safe confines of the Illinois State Senate, for example, his voting record on Iraq over the past three years is virtually indistinguishable from Senator Clinton’s – they voted identically on all 27 Iraq votes in 2007, except for two that Obama missed – including a number of votes in favor of further funding the war effort.
And his voting record overall is generally quite liberal. Although the recent National Journal report showing him to be the most liberal of all 100 senators in 2007 was something of an aberration (he was 16th and 17th most liberal the previous two years), his has been a consistently left-leaning voice during his time in the Senate. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a record – arguably, he is representing his reelection constituency, just as he did while a state senator – but it is a bit at odds with his promises to cross party lines and work hand-in-hand with Republicans.
Indeed, perhaps his best-known moment as a senator up until now was his dust-up with McCain when the senior senator from Arizona somewhat artlessly accused Obama of reneging on a promise to work together on ethics reform, after Obama backed down from joining a bipartisan task force on the issue and endorsed the Democratic version of ethics reform instead. Again, Obama’s actions may well be justified, but this episode is a reminder that in national politics big issues are played for partisan advantage, and bipartisanship is usually more ephemeral than durable.
Which brings us to Obama’s tenure in the Illinois State Senate. The debate up until now has focused solely on Obama’s use of “present” votes, which under the rules of the state senate are equivalent to “no” votes. The point is not the constitutionality of this tactic, as some have claimed, but rather the potential to hide controversial stances from constituents, and here an analysis of all votes cast during the 2001 and 2002 session shows that Obama used this tactic more even than most of his colleagues. In fact, he voted “present” 8th most out of 66 senators, including on parental notification before a minor could obtain an abortion, an action which drew the ire of the National Organization of Women.
But beyond this, voting records can reveal much about a legislator’s political predilections, and here as well Obama’s record does little to bolster his image of a bipartisan bridge-builder. Analysis of all 1,428 recorded Illinois Senate roll call votes, using scaling techniques now common in political methodology, shows Obama had a consistently partisan voting record. In particular, he was the 6th most liberal of all 66 senators, 10 times more likely to vote against Republicans than with them.
Even more discouraging is his cosponsorship record. Bill cosponsorships are opportunities for legislators from opposite sides of the aisle to announce their willingness to work with each other, signals that they share a common agenda and will work together to get things done. But bills which Obama sponsored had fewer than one Republican cosponsor, on average, out of 36 Republicans in the Senate: hardly a recipe for creating a post-partisan politics of inclusiveness.
Which still leaves open the question: on what record is Obama running? He is, in effect, promising not only to do something which previous presidents have never done, but which he has never done either. Absent a compelling argument to the contrary, why should the public believe that the Republicans will suddenly shed their partisan skins and join with a President Obama, working hand-in-hand with the Democrats to solve our nation’s problems? What if he offers his hand, only to see it rejected? What if Republicans use televised health care hearings to demagogue the issue and paint the Democrats as inveterate Socialists? What if they filibuster key elements of his agenda in the Senate, as they did in 1993-94? Is there a Plan B? These are the key questions of the Obama candidacy, and they have yet to be asked, let alone answered.