Why Your Local Democrat Voted With the President 99.9 Percent of the Time

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 6 2014 12:00 PM

Why Your Local Democrat Voted With the President 99.9 Percent of the Time

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Mary Landrieu wants the Keystone XL pipeline built, but is made out to be a clone of President Obama.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Karl Rove, for his sins (as seen by Tea Partiers), is still someone to listen to when it comes to framing elections. He's quite fond of the new CQ vote ratings of Congress, which reveal that the red-state Democrats who want to be re-elected this year "vote with Obama" more than 90 percent of the time.

The four red state Democratic senators running for re-election gave Mr. Obama's policies almost perfect support, led by Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and Alaska's Mark Begich at 97%, followed by North Carolina's Kay Hagan at 96% and Arkansas's Mike Pryor at 90%.
They are now trying to distance themselves from the president. Mr. Begich says he's "disappointed" in the State of the Union address and promises to "push back" if Mr. Obama signs objectionable executive orders. But Dan Sullivan, the former Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner and the likely Republican candidate, can make hay all day long with the senator's voting record.
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The Dan Sullivan line is sort of a tell—he's up by only 5 points in a three way primary—but that's not the point. The point is that Rove, who has some say in what independent groups might say on the air, is giddy about the prospect of ads saying Begich "voted with Barack Obama 97 percent of the time." We are destined for another round of "loyalty" ads, which are almost always total bullshit.

OK, they're bipartisan bullshit. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama's campaign faced the stiff challenge of presenting John McCain as a clone of George W. Bush. McCain had broken from Bush on a series of defining issues—taxes, campaign finance, etc. But McCain had frequently voted "with Bush" (i.e., with most Republicans, on bills that the White House was on the record favoring). Thus, voters were constantly reminded, in speeches and ads, that McCain "voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time."

Everybody does this, so it's never in a party's interest to dive into the numbers. Thus, as with ads claiming that so-and-so "voted for higher taxes 329 times," the muck of the legislative process becomes even more opaque. 

To clear it up briefly (it's a bigger topic than can fit in one post): Members of Congress take a lot of votes. During the government shutdown, every Democratic senator voted, repeatedly, to strike anti-Obamacare language from a funding bill. All of those votes are calculated as votes "with Obama," though those votes were more popular than Obama himself. In less heated times, Democrats cast a lot of votes to let uncontroversial nominees take office. These were also votes "with Obama." The vote to put former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel into DOD? "With Obama."

I'm not saying that these calculations are unfair. There are pundits who bemoan how partisan the Democrats and Republicans have become. I think that's useful for voters—they know that Tom Cotton, for example, is more likely to vote the way right-wing Arkansans want than Mark Pryor is. Every incumbent Democrat in 2014 voted for Obamacare, which should be more than enough to convince a conservative to oppose him/her.

But if your local Democrat breaks from the administration in big ways—if, like Joe Manchin, he readily talks about delaying the Obamacare mandate, or, like Mary Landrieu, she wants the Keystone XL pipeline built—these heresies will make up less than 10 percent of their votes.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.