Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Who's Conservative? Who's Moderate? Who's Liberal?

This week on the Campbell Conversations I conclude the pre-election candidate interviews, with Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle.  In contrast with Sandy, Buerkle has been at the center of a campaign storm that squarely hit Syracuse—the rematch in the 24th district between her and former Congressman Dan Maffei.  It’s been long, intense, and very sharply edged.  Adding to the mix is a spirited Green Party effort by Ursula Rozum. 
In this interview, Congresswoman Buerkle discusses the growing level of nastiness in politics, issues regarding the budget and health care, and the political dysfunction in Washington (for which she blames the Senate more than the House).  She also shares some personal reflections on her own conservatism—and it was that topic that got me thinking after the interview.
When asked where she would place herself on a scale of liberalism to conservatism, she gave a predictable answer for an elected official—that she doesn’t see herself as rooted in one particular position, and that she considers each issue on its own.  This is similar to what Richard Hanna told me regarding whether, in general, he would define himself as a moderate.
But she also embraced the conservative label—as she has from the beginning, and she provided some interesting self-reflections on why she developed conservative views.
What makes for a liberal or conservative?  What defines a moderate?  Dan Maffei, for example, has branded himself as a moderate in his effort to win back the seat, and in a recent feature piece in the Post-Standard, the paper seemed to agree in part, citing that during his term, his voting with party leadership 96 percent of the time made him more “moderate” than most other Democratic congressmen and congresswomen in New York, who had even higher loyalty ratings.  The paper also noted that Congresswoman Buerkle voted with her party leadership 95 percent of the time, making her the most loyal of the New York Republicans.
Is that the right measure, however?  A long-time and widely-used benchmark for liberalism in Congress, the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) voting ratings, suggests a different story, particularly if the attention is focused on the Central New York region.  Rather than looking at every single vote, the ADA selects what it considers to be the 20 most significant votes in a year, in which important liberal viewpoints are at stake, and creates a percent-based score.  In 2010, Dan Maffei earned a 90 percent rating, 20 points higher than nearby Democrats Michael Arcuri and Bill Owens.  In 2009, Maffei earned a perfect 100 percent rating, 15 points higher than Arcuri (Owens was not yet in office).  You can find those ratings here.
Alas, the ADA has not published ratings from the last two years, so we cannot see its take on Buerkle (at least I could not find those ratings on its website).