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The spectrum

Before we get back into that nonsensical mess of figuring out who’s more “liberal” or “conservative” than who, among the candidates for office, let’s pause and reflect on how little those standards mean.

Today’s lesson comes from the National Journal, one of the best political publications in the country, rigorously nonpartisan and usually about as fair as any you’ll find. Annually, it publishes a set of rankings of members of Congress, from one end of the spectrum to the other, and the new one is just out. (It does two lists, actually, one noting most and least liberal, the other most and least conservative. In the interest of efficiency, we’ll just use the “most liberal” one here – the measures are easy enough to follow from either end).

You could argue forever what criteria should determine “conservative” and “liberal” rankings, but the Journal’s are considered roughly mainstream. So: Here are how the six senators from the northwest rank among the 100, in terms of liberal standing:

Patty Murray, D-WA (17th)

Ron Wyden, D-OR (18th)

Maria Cantwell, D-WA (28th)

Gordon Smith, R-OR (49th)

Larry Craig, R-ID (60th)

Mike Crapo, R-ID (75th)

(Remember: Reverse the numbers from a scale of 100 to see roughly where they stand conservatively.)

More or less seems to make intuitive sense, doesn’t it? Except maybe for Craig’s standing: He’s almost always been tagged as one of the half-dozen or so most conservative senators, and Crapo along with him. That they rank so low on the conservative scale – and Craig, supposedly, coming in toward the liberal end of the Republican caucus – seems a bit odd.

And the Smith ranking: If you split the Senate into a liberal and a conservative half, according to this, Smith would fall on the “liberal” side – an idea few Republicans or Democrats would agree with.

Now consider the region’s House members.

Jim McDermott, D-WA 7 (9th)

Earl Blumenauer, D-OR 3 (46th)

Jay Inslee, D-WA 1 (88th)

Adam Smith, D-WA 9 (123rd)

Peter DeFazio, D-OR 4 (127th)

Rick Larsen, D-WA 2 (131st)

Brian Baird, D-WA 3 (132nd)

David Wu, D-OR 1 (135th)

Norm Dicks, D-WA 6 (138th)

Darlene Hooley, D-OR 5 (142nd)

C.L. “Butch” Otter, R-ID 1 (224th)

Dave Reichert, R-WA 9 (229th)

Mike Simpson, R-ID 2 (303rd)

Greg Walden, R-OR 2 (313th)

Doc Hastings, R-WA 4 (337th)

Cathy McMorris, R-WA 5 (352nd)

Mostly and in general, this looks fairly rational – it fits overall with most people;s conceptions of these people. The idea, for example, of Simpson, Walden, Hastings and McMorris grouped roughly together in the distinctly conservative part of the House, though not at its rightward edge, seems about right. On the other side, McDermott seems more or less placed about correctly among the most “liberal” members, and the followup by Blumenauer and Inslee feels right.

But what do you make of Butch Otter as the “least conservative” Republican in the delegation – left of Reichert, who is treading carefully in a district trending to the left of where he is? Could it be that Otter really isn’t that “conservative”?

Not likely, by the usual standards of the term. Probably what bumped his ranking toward “liberal territory” mostly was his stand on the Patriot Act, though he would argue (and convincingly) that stand resulted from his conservative viewpoints. (Same with Larry Craig.) But such considerations often get smudged in rankings like these.

That’s not a blast at National Journal, just a recognition that trying to bring coherent definition to an ideological structure as incoherent as ours is inevitably a terribly difficult task.

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