In case you haven’t heard by now, Sen. John McCain “voted with Bush” 90 percent of the time, and McCain has confessed with his own lips that he has been “totally in agreement” with Bush on the “transcendent issues” of our time.
These two factoids are favorites of the Obama campaign, cited constantly by Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and included in TV ads. They support the central attack point of Team Obama: that the election of McCain would usher in four more years of Bushiness (and that therefore, McCain’s claim that his record shows him to be a maverick and a change agent are bogus).
The two facts are certainly technically accurate. The conclusion, that McCain represents the continuation of Bush is arguable — and for me, is more true than false — but obviously (We’re all adults here, right? We can handle an honest discussion?) depends on what you define as the essence of Bushiness.
Thanks but no thanks for facts
I’ll come back to those questions in a minute, and delve a little bit into the strengths and weaknesses of the two factoids. But I don’t want to fall into that old journalistic trap of implying false parity between a distortion I wrote about two days ago — Gov. Sarah Palin’s claim vis a vis the Bridge to Nowhere — and the 90 percent Bush score. So, please permit me this aside: Gov. Sarah Palin continues, apparently in every speech, to claim that she “told Congress thanks but no thanks on that Bridge to Nowhere.”
Every serious examination of this claim has concluded that it is something between a half-truth and a lie. In 2006, Palin favored the Bridge to Nowhere as a candidate for governor. In 2007, she saluted the work of the Alaskan congressional delegation in getting the earmark to build the bridge. But, after Congress had already abandoned the project, she canceled it. What she really said to Congress was (this is a fanciful paraphrase):
“Thanks for the federal money for this worthy project. But if the federal taxpayers aren’t going to pay for the entire bridge, I’m not going to use any Alaskan tax money to complete it. So I’ll just spend the money on other things.”
And she did.
It troubles me (and I’m hoping you, too) that our political culture tolerates and even apparently rewards a contempt for facts. The Washington Post ran a piece Wednesday about this pattern of repeating a claim long after it has been exposed as a deception. Republican strategist John Feehery is quoted saying that facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters’ opinions of the candidates. Here’s the quote:
“The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there’s a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she’s new, she’s popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent,” Feehery said. “As long as those are out there, these little facts don’t really matter.”
I prefer to think facts do matter, although the evidence at present is a little shaky. Every time Palin repeats her “thanks but no thanks” line, she insults her audience, essentially counting on them not knowing or not caring that she is misleading them. The issue of the bridge itself is small potatoes. As president, McCain would try to crack down on earmarks. Palin, despite her record, won’t stop him. And earmark abuse is a relatively small — shall we say, non-transcendent — issue.
The issue raised by Palin’s refusal to drop her half-truth is a reasonable respect for facts and for her audience’s intelligence. McCain’s reputation for candor and honesty is implicated the longer she keeps it up. She should cut it out.
I’ll get back to my main point now about Team Obama’s favorite factoids. But before I do, with awareness that selective perception is a powerful factor in these matters, and acknowledging the possibility that Obama admirers may fail to notice violence committed against facts by the Dem ticket, I specifically invite McCain-Palin admirers to raise, in the thread below this piece, comparable statements that have been used and repeated by Obama or Biden after they have been examined and found to be deceptive.
Where was I?
Oh yes, the 90 percent fact and the “transcendent” quote. Apologies for the long digression.
There are many ways of scoring the votes of a member of Congress. None is perfect. The estimable Congressional Quarterly compiles one that it calls “presidential agreement.” CQ identifies votes before Congress on which the White House has taken a clear position.
The portion of those cases in which a member voted with the White House position is the “presidential agreement” score. Since Bush took office, McCain has a composite, seven-year, presidential agreement score of 90 percent. On that basis, the Obama claim that McCain “voted with Bush 90 percent of the time” is quite accurate.
In the spirit of the Palin-bridge-to-nowhere diatribe above, I should also give Team Obama a demerit for hyping McCain’s Bush agreement score and a small point for cutting it out after they got called on it. Members of the Obama team, including Joe Biden at a rally just after Obama picked him as running mate, used to say things like:
Biden on 8/23/08: “You can’t change America when you supported George Bush’s policies 95 percent of the time.
McCain did have a presidential agreement score of 95 percent in 2007, but that’s the highest annual figure he has had during Bush’s tenure. And, because of the presidential campaign, McCain missed more than half of the votes that CQ scored as tests of presidential agreement that year.
Since the excellent Politifact gave Biden a “half true” rating for cherry-picking the data (without disclosing that it was a one-year figure) Biden and Obama and their spokesters have generally used the more-complete 90 percent figure covering the whole Bush tenure.
OK, you may be thinking, big deal, 90 or 95 still proves that McCain is a Bush love slave. But …
What would you say if I told you that from Bush’s inauguration through the August congressional recess, Joe Biden has a Bush agreement score of 52 percent? One year (the highest) Biden scored a 77 percent. Obama’s score since coming to Washington in 2005: 40 percent.
How can that be?
University of Wisconsin political scientist John Coleman nailed all this down in an excellent Pollster.com blog post. CQ isn’t ranking the number of controversial issues on which the members agree with Bush. They are identifying specific congressional votes — and not all of these are measures initiated by the White House — on which the White House had a clear “aye or nay” preference.
In 2007, this was just 22 percent of all roll-call votes. Many big showdown votes do not make the list, because the White House didn’t have a clear position. Many non-controversial confirmation votes in the Senate do make the list, since it’s clear the president is seeking a favorable vote on his nominees. (Obama and Biden don’t oppose every Bush appointment.) Professor Coleman found that McCain’s 90 percent overall Bush agreement figure was about average for a Senate Republican.
This is not a devastating blow to the Obamian hope of tying to McCain to Bush. It suggests that even the use of the accurate 90 percent figure is a bit of hype, if you don’t mention the comparable scores for Obama and Biden. It also reveals that the CQ score is an imperfect measure of Bushiness (not that I know of a better one).
It’s still true that McCain has opposed Bush on many issues, such as Bush’s original tax cuts, which McCain felt were stacked too much in favor of the wealthy. It’s also true, according to the way that CQ scores these things, that McCain has voted against the majority of Republicans more often than Obama has voted against the majority of Democrats. For example, McCain’s co-sponsorship, with Sen. Ted Kennedy, of a “comprehensive” immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for illegal aliens was an area where he bucked Republican majority.
It’s also true that as he maneuvered toward a candidacy for the Repub presidential nomination, McCain recanted many of these heresies. He now wants to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent and favors postponing comprehensive immigration reform and concentrating on border security.
All of this creates confusing, countervailing currents around the question of whether McCain is best understood as a maverick or a Bushy.
But what if McCain himself simplified the problem by confessing, live and on camera, that he agrees with Bush on most issues, and all of the transcendent ones?
On June 19, 2005 — as he contemplated a run for prez in 2008, before it was clear that Bushiness would be the new kiss of death of American politics, and especially as he contemplated the difficulties of running for the GOP nomination if he were perceived as the anti-Bush — McCain did his future Dem opponents exactly that favor.
Reading the quote in its full context, especially the question by the late Tim Russert that led to it, may add some context to the way you feel about it
RUSSERT: “It is interesting. The Washington Post put up these numbers. Hillary Clinton has an 81 percent approval among Dems; 55 percent approval amongst Independents; 20 with the GOP. You have a 59 percent approval with Democrats; 59 with Independents; and just 56 with Republicans. And what people point to — and this is an article in your hometown paper, the Arizona Republic, “At Odds With Bush. John McCain repeatedly has taken maverick positions that have put him at odds with President Bush’s administration, and rankled his party’s right wing. Among McCain’s stances that differ from those of Bush: tax cuts … war … domestic spending … campaign-finance reform … Medicare … drug importation … stem-cell research … environment … patients’ rights … judicial appointments … 2004 campaign,” and particularly the rhetoric about John Kerry. The fact is you are different than George Bush.”
SEN. McCAIN: “No. No. I — the fact is that I’m different but the fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I’ve been totally in agreement and support of President Bush. So have we had some disagreements on some issues, the bulk — particularly domestic issues? Yes. But I will argue my conservative record voting with anyone’s, and I will also submit that my support for President Bush has been active and very impassioned on issues that are important to the American people. And I’m particularly talking about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, national security, national defense, support of men and women in the military, fiscal discipline, a number of other issues. So I strongly disagree with any assertion that I’ve been more at odds with the president of the United States than I have been in agreement with him.
Context matters. If McCain gets a tough interview now, the equivalent question would be something like: How can you claim to be the right person to bring change to Washington when you have President Bush’s positions on most issues and you have a record of voting with Bush 90 percent of the time?
And his answer would be that he has a record of disagreeing with Bush, bucking the Republican Party and breaking with conservative orthodoxy on issues where his reading of the national interest impelled him to do so. If the interviewer asked for specifics, he would list many of the same items that Russert listed. And if, by some slip of the tongue, the interviewer had ended his question with the words “The fact is you are different than George Bush.” McCain would not begin his answer with the words “No. No.”
And the political calculation behind McCain’s 2008 answer would be as transparent as it retrospectively is behind the 2005 answer. Likewise the political calculation behind Dems’ desire to portray McCainism as an extension of Bushism.