By Richard E. Cohen
February 27, 2004On the night of February 17, after finishing a surprisingly close second to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the Wisconsin primary, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., made the rounds of television interviews and repeated what has become a familiar theme. Asked on CNN about his campaign strategy, Edwards replied that he planned to emphasize the contrasts between him and the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"I think it's important for people to know the differences between us," Edwards said. "I like and respect John Kerry very much. And I think he feels the same way about me. But we have differences." Edwards added a few moments later: "There are clear differences between us. Now those differences will become more apparent to Democratic voters."
Judging by National Journal's congressional vote ratings, however, Kerry and Edwards aren't all that different, at least not when it comes to how they voted on key issues before the Senate last year. The results of the vote ratings show that Kerry was the most liberal senator in 2003, with a composite liberal score of 96.5. But Edwards wasn't far behind: He had a 2003 composite liberal score of 94.5, making him the fourth-most-liberal senator.
National Journal's vote ratings rank members of Congress on how they vote relative to each other on a conservative-to-liberal scale in each chamber. The scores, which have been compiled each year since 1981, are based on lawmakers' votes in three areas: economic policy, social policy, and foreign policy. The scores are determined by a computer-assisted calculation that ranks members from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other, based on key votes -- 62 in the Senate in 2003 -- selected by National Journal reporters and editors.
The fact that Kerry and Edwards had such similar scores in 2003 is striking, because during the course of their Senate careers, their ratings have often placed them in different wings of their party.
Kerry has compiled a generally more liberal voting record. After winning election to the Senate in 1984, he ranked among the most-liberal senators during three years of his first term, according to National Journal's vote ratings. In those years -- 1986, 1988, and 1990 -- Kerry did not vote with Senate conservatives a single time out of the total of 138 votes used to prepare those ratings.
Edwards, on the other hand, had a moderate voting record during the first four years following his election to the Senate in 1998. The results positioned Edwards comfortably apart from Senate liberals, but not so far to the right that he locked arms with centrist Republicans. His consistent moderation placed Edwards among the center-right of Senate Democrats. But once Edwards decided to run for president and abandoned his bid for a second Senate term, his record moved dramatically to the left in 2003.
Last year, Kerry, Edwards, and other congressional Democrats who were seeking the presidency, including Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, missed many votes. To qualify for a score in National Journal's vote ratings, members must participate in at least half of the votes in an issue category. Of the 62 Senate votes used to compute the 2003 ratings, Kerry was absent for 37 votes and Edwards missed 22.
As a result, in the 2003 vote ratings, Kerry received a rating only in the economic policy category, earning a perfect liberal score. Edwards received ratings in the categories of economic and social issues, also putting up perfect liberal scores.
A separate analysis showed that of the votes that Kerry cast in the two categories in which he did not receive scores in 2003 -- social policy and foreign policy -- he consistently took the liberal view within the Senate. Edwards did not receive a score in the foreign-policy category; he sided with the liberals on five votes in that area, and with the conservatives on one vote. On foreign policy, Kerry and Edwards -- both of whom supported the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq -- last year joined most Senate Democrats in voting that half of the U.S. reconstruction aid to Iraq be provided as loans, a provision that ultimately was dropped.
To be sure, Kerry's ranking as the No. 1 Senate liberal in 2003 -- and his earning of similar honors three times during his first term, from 1985 to 1990 -- will probably have opposition researchers licking their chops. As shown in the accompanying chart, Kerry had a perfect liberal rating on social issues during 10 of the 18 years in which he received a score, meaning that he did not side with conservatives on a single vote in those years. That included his 1996 vote, with 13 other Senate Democrats, against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of states' same-sex marriage laws. Along the campaign trail, Republicans likely will remind voters of Kerry's stance on that issue.
But interestingly, during Kerry's second term, from 1991 to 1996, he dropped back into the pack of Democratic senators and voted more moderately. In those years, he earned composite liberal scores in National Journal's vote ratings ranging from 78.2 to 85.8.
Kerry was especially moderate in his second term when it came to foreign-policy issues. He opposed the liberal position in key Senate showdowns on missile-defense and intelligence spending in 1993, and on procurement of additional F-18 Navy fighters in 1996. Such votes could provide Kerry with some useful talking points for his presidential campaign. Kerry also voted with President Clinton and congressional Republicans, but against many liberals, in favor of welfare reform in 1996, and he occasionally split from organized labor on workplace issues.
Meanwhile, Edwards, the son of a textile worker, has frequently pointed to trade issues as one of the key "differences" between him and his opponent. He has criticized Kerry's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and for other international trade deals during the Clinton presidency. (While Edwards did not serve in the Senate during much of that time, news reports confirm that he opposed NAFTA during his 1998 campaign, although it was not a major campaign issue.)
In fact, both senators have spotty records on trade issues. This helps to explain why organized labor backed other Democratic candidates in the early presidential caucuses and primaries.
Edwards voted with Kerry in 2000 to establish trade relations with China, and in 2002 to extend presidential trade-negotiating authority. Also in 2000, Edwards split from Kerry by opposing legislation to drop U.S. trade barriers with Africa and the Caribbean. (That vote was excluded from National Journal's Senate vote ratings because it did not correlate statistically.) In July 2003, Edwards opposed free-trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, each of which passed the Senate handily, despite mostly Democratic opposition. Kerry missed both votes.
By Richard E. Cohen
February 27, 2004