National Journal is getting a lot of ink locally (e.g., here and here) due to their ranking the ideology of many of 2006's frosh congresscritters, including Arizona's Gabby Giffords and Harry Mitchell, smack dab near the center of the political spectrum.
When you take a closer look at the actual votes on which National Journal based their ratings, however, what they actually seem to be measuring is mostly how two key issues - Iraq and immigration - are causing some Democrats to throw out their principles in the name of expediency and poorly-judged pragmatism.
A closer analysis of the fairly small sample of bills upon which the rankings are based indicates that in most respects Giffords and Mitchell both generally hew closely to the party line on most issues other than immigration and Iraq. The moderate nature of both candidates is largely a feature of their shared (and mistaken, in my view) hands-off approach to the war in Iraq, and their perceived need to armor themselves against the immigration fire-fight in Arizona.
Giffords is not ranked as notably more "economically moderate" than, say, Rep. Ed Pastor - at least in terms of her actual votes. She has not been nearly as much of an economic conservative in her votes to date as her overall centrist ranking, and her membership in the Blue Dogs, might suggest.
What Mitchell champions, however, is clearly out of step with most of his caucus - not surprising considering he too made a bid to join the Blue Dogs. What is surprising is that his rhetoric, and to a lesser extent his votes, actually indicates that he is much more in tune with conservative tax philosophy (coddle the rich and soak the middle class), yet it was Giffords who got the nod from the Blue Dogs. Maybe Mitchell's tax rhetoric put him too far to the right even for the Blue Dog's comfort. In the end, I think that Mitchell's ranking as a 'moderate' on economic matters, is rather too generous. He actually deserves to be in amongst the Republicans proper when you take into account his advocacy, as well as his votes.
UPDATE 3/14/08: Mitchell has made it two years in a row now that he has voted against his own party's budget. If he's trying to establish his fiscal conservative credentials, I think he's more than done the job.
Despite their fairly middle-of-the-road rankings in social policy, neither member is sending many overt signals to the 'values voters'. They do score considerably more conservative than other Dems in the Arizona delegation and the Caucus overall, but that is almost entirely down to votes having to do with immigration and immigrant rights.
The big difference between 'social centrists' like Gabby and Harry and the rest of the caucus is how terrified they are of creating a record that can be characterized as 'pro-immigrant.' The callousness and pettiness that these 'centrists' will stoop to in order to avoid giving racists and xenophobes any ammunition is often farcical.
On foreign policy, both members score more conservatively than their Arizona Democratic delegation-mates, but that is predominantly down to their votes on Iraq. Their score also includes a few instances when their urge to throw money at a military system outstripped any fiscal restraint or desire to look deeper at our actual strategic needs - a common and unfortunate Democratic habit that our members default to in order to forestall being labeled as anti-military, but that results in massive pork and a flabby, wasteful military.
I will take a closer look at the particular votes that earned Giffords and Mitchell their milquetoasty middle-of-the-herd street cred after the flip, and consider how well-deserved are their carefully-crafted, centrist images...
Economic Rankings (based on 44 bills)
Giffords 62% (i.e. more liberal than 62% of members of Congress)
Mitchell 53% (i.e. more liberal than 53% of members of Congress)
Both Mitchell and Giffords hewed to the Democratic line on the most important economic bills factored into the ranking. On issues like minimum wage, financial aid, mortgage crisis, energy policy and taxes, unions, and housing they stayed right in line with the caucus. There were notable exceptions that put them at odds with their caucus, however.
One bill on which both Mitchell and Giffords agreed with each other was in rejecting HConRes 99, the Congressional Black Caucus' substitute 2008 budget, which expanded domestic spending and repealed Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy. They were hardly alone; this vote cut the Democratic Caucus in half (115-113), and was destined for Bush's veto stamp even had it passed. Pastor and Grijalva both voted for it, but If this vote makes Gabby and Harry centrists, half of Democrats are centrists.
Mitchell earned some his additional 9% of 'moderation' with two key votes. He was one of just 13 Democrats (Giffords not among them) who rejected the whole 2008 budget. Mitchell says he did it because it allowed some tax cuts to expire.
The other bill Mitchell bucked the herd with was HR 3996, which revised AMT to benefit middle-class families and paid for it by raising the rate at which hedge fund profits are taxed to the same rate as capital gains. Mitchell actually voted against that, which bolsters my view that Mitchell's rhetoric about opposing taxes that impact regular people is malarkey - this tax measure benefited regular people by treating fat-cats like everyone else, and he still voted against it.
When faced with a similar provision paying for AMT cuts with additional taxes on off-shore income, however, he voted yes. Maybe his nerve failed him when it came to stuffing the pockets of asshats like Halliburton who move to Dubai.
Mitchell really is more 'moderate'—if that's what we are calling an abiding solicitude for the tax rates of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and poor—than most Democrats, and clearly more so than Giffords. Giffords doesn't differ markedly from a large plurality of the Caucus, based on this sample. But I do know of one instance, not included in this sample, where she voted to complete repeal the estate tax for some damn reason—apparently she also has her plutocratic impulses.
I've dogged Mitchell before about his abiding, and risibly justified, interest in keeping Bush's capital gains and estate tax cuts in place. His votes indicate a certain sincerity about his convictions—in the same way everyone was sincerely convinced Columbus was going to sail off the edge of the world—but ultimately, his kicking against the traces is likely to have little effect on his Caucus, and he probably knows it, ... and his Caucus knows he knows it. So the leadership winks and studiously ignores Mitchell's rantings and anti-tax press conferences. As long as he doesn't start spouting about a flat tax and hanging out with Neil Boortz, they seem to be cool with his hysterics, just so long as he holds down CD 5 for the Blue Team.
Is Harry just engaged in some harmless rhetoric to mollify the wealthiest members of his constituency? Maybe. But the effect goes well beyond merely making the Club for Growth gush over him. Credible Democratic guys like Harry spouting Laffer-curve asininities and claiming that capital gains cuts help average people lend credibility to the conservative tax-haters' most egregious laugh lines. STOP IT, HARRY! Be a moderate, fine, but don't be a dupe for the plutocrats. OK. Got that out of my system.
Social Rankings (based on 35 bills)
Giffords 53% (i.e. more liberal than 53% of members)
Mitchell 52% (i.e. more liberal than 52% of members)
Almost all of the difference between Giffords and Mitchell and the rest of the Caucus on this section is based on votes they cast in a clear effort to insulate themselves against charges of human trafficking and being on the payroll of the secret government of Aztlan by the anti-immigration wing of the GOP.
Gabby and Harry march hand in hand on bill after bill that relates to immigration. At least 10 out of the 35 bills evaluated to create the social rankings were directly related to immigration and immigrants, heavily weighting the outcome for any member from a district near the border, and/or containing an unhealthy dose of nativist and/or racist wackadoodles.
Here is a list of the bills relating to immigration which both Giffords and Mitchell voted in favor of, against the majority of their Caucus:
- HR1427: Require owners or renters in affordable-housing residences to prove their legal residency.
- HR1427: Bar federal housing banks from processing mortgages to an individual without a valid Social Security number.
- HR2638: Bar funds to state or local governments that refuse to share information on immigrant status with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Bureau.
- HR3043: Bar funds for the Social Security Administration to administer benefit payments in any agreement with Mexico.
- HR3093: Increase funds for law enforcement against illegal aliens.
- HR2786: Bar funds to employ illegal immigrants.
- HR1852: Require affordable-housing beneficiaries to show proof of legal residency.
Harry went the extra mile to placate xenophobic idiots in his district by also voting contrary to the Caucus (and even to Gabby) with yeses on HR 3043 (prevent the Dept. of Ed. from processing non-English scholarship applications) and HR 800 (require an employee to affirm citizenship requirements when participating in a labor union "card check"). He really took the to the high ground to fly his anti-immigration freak flag.
Gabby, in turn, did Harry one better in feeding the anti-immigrant hysteria by voting, cross-wise the Caucus, in favor of HR 3161 (prohibit rental-housing assistance to illegal immigrants). I'm sure you'll be seeing ads against poor Harry for neglecting to be a little more mean to those dirty illegals. "Harry wants to spend your tax dollars to pay for this criminal alien's rent!" Bah. Mark my words.
Fortunately, they both had rare moments when they placed reason and prudence above play-it-safe politics. They both refused to throw tax-payer money down a post-hole in the desert when they refused to fund the nonsensical border fence fantasy of HR 2638. They also refused to fold entirely to the Right's xenophobic terrorism by voting down HR3093, which would have barred EEOC from filing suit against employers who require English only be used in the workplace.
They both had the unfortunate judgment to make rehabilitation for people who have historical felony criminal convictions even harder by voting for HR1227, which prevents folks who've already paid for their mistakes from occupying rebuilt housing in the Gulf Coast (producing what I assure you is a deeply racially-biased outcome). I'm very disappointed in them both for this flagrant and cowardly nugget of cruelty.
Harry apparently had an impulse to give a nod toward the "marriage über alles" folks back home by voting for HR 3685, which tried to allow hiring on the basis of marital status.
Other than those votes, which were clearly resonant with the anti-immigration hysterics in both parties back in their home districts, neither displayed too marked a propensity to color outside the caucus lines on social issues. Though they both need an education on the legal burdens we have unfairly heaped upon those convicted of crimes and have paid their debts and done their penance, neither would ever qualify for a positive rating in any "family values" voter guide.
They are both overly cautious of being characterized as embracing or protecting immigrants (though their advisers undoubtedly think they are playing "smart" with these votes), but such a position is not really all that "moderate" a stance—just a cowardly one.
If "moderate" is just another word for "coward"—and I suppose their are many who would so argue (the old saying goes, "there ain't nothin' in the middle of the road 'cept yellow stripes and dead coyotes")—then perhaps Gabby and Harry are social "moderates." But I don't think so. I would say that Gabby and Harry are pretty normal social liberals who are just political cowards when it comes to immigration issues.
Foreign Policy Rankings (based on 28 bills)
Giffords 54% (i.e. more liberal than 54% of members)
Mitchell 56% (i.e. more liberal than 56% of members)
Gabby's and Harry's main (and in my view, most reprehensible) departures from the majority of the Democratic Caucus were, of course, their pivotal votes on Iraq, which heralded the full and craven retreat by Congress in the battle to drag the Bush Administration toward reality.
They both voted against HR 2237, which would have required substantial withdrawal from Iraq in 180 days. They were in the company of 57 other Democrats, so they certainly weren't alone, but they were in a substantial minority. The bill would have been vetoed, of course, but it would have indicated a willingness to actually take the President on over the conduct of the war, and would have served as a reasonable position from which to begin to bargain.
The defeat of HR 2237 by members of their own caucus was the Democrats' Waterloo on the Iraq issue. From then on, we've only been negotiating with ourselves, not the Administration. By voting for HR 2206, the infamous 2007 Iraq appropriation with the meaningless, ass-covering benchmarks (haven't heard much about progress on those lately, have you?), Democrats like Gabby and Harry proved that they'll give Bush everything he wants in Iraq if he just waives his magic veto stamp around.
Almost all of the Democratic Caucus voted for HR 2206, of course—by then there wasn't really anything left to fight for, and all but the most pig-headed had accepted defeat. The vote on HR 2237 forms the core of "centrist' Democrats" worst political crimes: the betrayal of the constitutional responsibility of Congress to exercise actual oversight and control spending, and their cynical deal to trade soldiers' lives for political maneuvering space around the issue of withdrawal from Iraq for the 2008 campaign season.
Gabby and Harry failed us, failed America, failed our soldiers, failed the people of Iraq, and failed their oaths of office with those votes. They will claim that they were making sure that the troops wouldn't be left without support, but that would never have happened, and they know it. They simply abdicated their responsibility because it was politically easier to just let the President have his failure and choke on it, than to take him on by asserting Congress's constitutional prerogatives.
I deeply disagree with their craven decisions and I don't think those decisions mark them as particularly "moderate" of foreign policy, any more than their votes on immigration matters make them "social moderates." Rather, their votes on Iraq, like those on immigration, merely mark them as political cowards.
Of course, Gabby and Harry didn't just fold on Iraq. They also failed to show any courage or leadership on missile defense (the defense contractor welfare program). Rather than voting to decrease wasteful spending on this deeply stupid, impractical, and deeply destabilizing and strategically misguided program, and thereby show some actual leadership on defense matters, they voted to neither cut nor increase the missile defense budget in HR 1585. Apparently, missile defense is already "just right," which I suppose is some sort of a "moderate" position.
Unfortunately, being "moderate" (which I think I've now established is frequently a synonym for "coward") isn't always confined to a minority of the Democratic Caucus. These are times that test each Member's character and commitment to democratic values; unfortunately, most usually come up lacking.
Harry and Gabby didn't fail to disappoint on an absolutely meaningless resolution that nonetheless meant a great deal. HJRes 52, the "Congress thinks General Petreus is a pissy-pants who can't take being called names, so let's trash the free political expression of an organization representing millions of Americans" Resolution. Unfortunately, only 79 Democrats had the stones to stand up for the freedom of political expression and refused to tolerate the nakedly partisan, manipulative, and unprecedented rebuke of MoveOn.org for exercising their right to engage in silly political name-calling. Gabby and Harry, and Ed Pastor, weren't among the heroes that day, alas.
Harry had some fun on the wrong side of the aisle voting in favor of "free trade" with Peru (HR 3688) and against barring the use of military funds for operation in Iran (HR 1585).
Gabby got athwart of the Caucus in throwing more money at our problems. Not the ones that would generally respond well to such treatment (like homelessness, poverty, disaster relief, education, etc.), but those about which "moderates" and conservatives don't hesitate: our broken and dying intelligence community (HR 2082) and anti-terror efforts in Iraq ($158 million worth in HR 2764).
To top off these feats of "moderation," I will point to one area where Gabby and Harry certainly got it absolutely right: requiring the Pentagon to videotape the interrogation of detainees (HR 1585). Forty-four Democrats actually thought that such a prudent insistence on Congressional oversight and basic due process was a bad idea; Gabby and Harry weren't among them. Good on them.
If Gabby and Harry represent some sort of new middle ground in American politics, then we're in deep trouble. Political cowardice, insanely irresponsible conservative tax schemes, pandering to racists and xenophobes, selling out our troops, and throwing good money after bad on cocktail-napkin pipe-dreams (like Star Wars), Neo-Con wet-dreams (like the occupation of Iraq), and ginned-up nightmares (like a war with Iran), don't strike me as in any way moderate or centrist. Gabby's and Harry's politics during their first terms may be the way these Democrats have chosen to win elections, but they aren't any way to lead a nation. We should expect better; only then might we get it.