Monday, January 01, 2007

Not very useful journalism about Clinton and Obama votes

In today's Washington Post, an article comparing the voting records of Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sets out to find rifts between the two possible presidential candidates. On the one hand, the author of the article does try to illustrate the complexity of Senate votes, which are so often misconstrued; on the other hand, she herself helps to misconstrue Clinton's and Obama's voting records by suggesting there are vast differences between the two and by the way in which she interprets their votes.

For one, Clinton and Obama really don't differ over a lot. They have voted with each other 90 percent of the time, and the votes the author cites as indicating polarization between the two Senators are relatively inconsequential, like a vote over whether a Senator can hold a separate job. The biggest point of departure between Clinton and Obama appears to be over requiring mandates of the-corn based fuel ethanol at refineries. Obama, who represents a state with heavy ethanol interests unsurprisingly supported the measure; Clinton, whose state up until recently had little connection to the ethanol industry opposed the measure.

From what I can tell, both Clinton's and Obama's voting records show general good judgement, even when they come down on opposite sides on a vote, but this article makes something out of nothing, several times:

Obama voted to increase taxes when he opposed a package of business breaks that included the extension of middle-class provisions. Clinton voted for the tax bill -- before she voted against it, as did Obama, in the legislation's final form.

For one thing, the phrasing "voted for the tax bill--before she voted against it" is obviously a deliberate attempt to resurrect the language that got John Kerry in trouble in 2004 when the Bush campaign opaquely referenced Kerry's vote against a defense appropriations bill after he sponsored an amendment to pay for the 87 billion appropriations bill by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts. That amendment was voted down, so Kerry was perfectly consistent in voting against the bill. Just like the Bush campaign, the author of this article makes no effort to figure out why Clinton voted against the legislation in its final form, which is a perfectly reasonable and common thing for a Senator to do.

Furthermore, deducing Obama's position on this bill as a vote "to increase taxes" is not useful. Obama voted to prevent tax breaks on businesses, which is not the same as voting for a tax increase. Coupling the extension of middle-class tax provisions with business tax breaks is a hallmark of a Republican Congress that eagerly neutered any bill that tried to help middle and working class Americans by adding pro-business (deficit-increasing) provisions. It is perfectly reasonable for Senators Clinton and Obama to see the costs of such a bill outweighing the benefits. The writer unfortunately fits these votes into the all too convenient (and mindless) attack-ad rubric.

This writer goes on to point out how such votes can get misconstrued--

As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) discovered in previous campaigns, the Congressional Record is a minefield for White House contenders, a catalogue of provincial concerns, convoluted logic and compromised principles.

--though she herself is helping to misconstrue votes. It is unhelpful for a journalist to effectively sit back and let a politician define the terms of a debate, by writing about the tactical as opposed to the substantive ramifications of a vote record. What good is a journalist if not to interpret the complexity of Senate votes for the average newspaper reader?

An aside about the issue of experience for candidates in the upcoming presidential election: I want to point out that members of the current administration with years of experience--Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld--and those with minimal experience--George W. Bush, who had four years as governor of the state with the least powerful gubernatorial office--have equally screwed things up. I don't think experience matters so much as good judgement, good intentions, and proven dexterity in past elected and non-elected occupations. Too much experienced arguably clouded the minds of men like Cheney and Rumsfeld who have been too oriented towards old threats to sufficiently understand new ones.

On the issue of experience though, Barack Obama was one of the best if not the best legislator in the Illinois State Senate for a number of years. Although Edwards--whose positions I like--appears to be touted as more experienced than Obama, Obama will have had almost as much time in the Senate by 2008 as Edwards did in 2004, plus time as a state senator. I also think it's interesting that the experience card is used both ways. One is a "Washington insider" if s/he is experienced (plus, s/he has years of a House or Senate record dredged up as ammunition against him/her), one is not up to the job if s/he is inexperienced. This is why I am going to look at the substantive accomplishments and abilities of a particular candidate rather than trust the abstractions over qualities like experience, which tend to be used for spin either for or against the candidate.

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