Only 17?: Plenty of Senators Are Just as Far to the Left as Vermont's Proud Socialist - or Farther

COMMENTARY Political Process

Only 17?: Plenty of Senators Are Just as Far to the Left as Vermont's Proud Socialist - or Farther

Apr 22, 2009 4 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow

Michael is a former Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

"Sen. Bernie Sanders wants Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) to start naming names." So reports Politico's Glenn Thrush.

He was referring to the "usually soft-spoken" senior Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, who had told a Birmingham reporter that there are 17 "socialists" in Congress.

Bachus's assertion prompted what Thrush characterized as "cries of McCarthyism in the lefty blogosphere" -- especially when he named only one lawmaker: Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who happily calls himself a "democratic socialist."

"Has Spencer released his list yet?" Sanders joked. "Everybody's waiting with bated breath. . . .I think at the very least he has to tell people what his definition of socialism is."

At the risk of inviting the Left's wrath, let me help flesh out a list. As for that elusive definition of "socialism," I'll use as a barometer the voting record compiled by the Senate's only avowed man of the people -- the distinguished gentleman from Vermont himself. That is, we can presume the more often a lawmaker votes with Congress's lone acknowledged socialist, the greater his or her comfort level with the sort of policies he embraces.

Thus far in 2009, senators have cast 154 roll-call votes, many of which have been of historic importance. It's not every Congress, after all, that jumps out of the starting gate and passes trillion-dollar stimulus packages, creates new entitlement programs and expands old ones, repeals the most successful social-policy accomplishment in over half a century (welfare reform), doubles Uncle Sam's role in education, lays the groundwork for the government's takeover of our health system, and sets in motion a multi-hundred-billion-dollar tax increase on that most despised of constituent groups -- the "rich."

Yes, these first few months of the Obama Era have been heady times indeed for those who see a government solution to every societal problem.

Only one senator has voted entirely in sync with Sanders: Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. But due to his severe illness, he has voted only eight times, so we will not count him in the following tabulations.

Over one-third of the Senate -- 35 senators, all of them Democrats -- have voted the Sanders line 90 percent of the time or more. Since that's more than twice the number we need to fill out Bachus's list, let's restrict membership in the "Sanders Socialist Society" to just those senators voting with him at least 95 percent of the time. They number 15: Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), John Kerry (D., Mass.), Jack Reed (D., R.I.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Tom Harkin (D., Ia.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.), Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), Ben Cardin (D., Md.), Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), Roland Burris (D., Ill.), and Ted Kaufman (D., Del.).

Falling just shy of the cut-off -- at 94 percent agreement with Sanders -- are Sens. Daniel Akaka (D., Hawaii.), Chris Dodd (D., Conn.), Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii), Carl Levin (D., Mich.), Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), along with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

The sameness of voting records holds up when you exclude about 50 votes -- cloture motions, votes to confirm nominees to various executive-branch positions, and so on -- that shed little light on one's philosophical disposition.

Of course, not every Democratic senator votes in lockstep with Sanders. The greatest deviationist among Senate Democrats is Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who still managed to agree with the Vermonter 59 percent of the time.

Republican senators who toe the Sanders line most often are (can you guess?) Maine's Olympia Snowe (61 percent) and Susan Collins (56), followed by Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter (53).

At the opposite end of the Sanders spectrum are such conservative stalwarts as Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.), Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), John Cornyn (R., Tex.), and Jim Bunning (R., Ky.).

To the conservative untutored in the nuances of modern-day socialism, some of Sanders's votes may be surprising. For example, he joins most Republicans in his avid support of Second Amendment rights (a well-armed citizenry is the only defense against fascist storm troopers who might one day invade our homes and strip us of our rights). And he was one of only eight Democrats to vote against releasing the second $350 billion installment of funds for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (the proletariat should not pay for the sins of capitalist bankers). These votes explain why even Jim Inhofe and Jim DeMint agree with Sanders about 10 to 15 percent of the time, and they suggest that some of his liberal colleagues, who routinely vote against Second Amendment rights and for corporate bailouts, may actually be to the left of thesocialist Sanders!

This raises the question: Why does Sanders fit so comfortably into the modern Democratic party? Is he a fraud, just another run-of-the-mill liberal Democrat who sports the socialist label to impress granola-crunching, tree-hugging, redistributionist liberals in Vermont? This is entirely possible. After all, during the eight terms Sanders served in the House before moving to the Senate, he amassed an impressive, but by no means remarkable, liberal voting record.

In fact, Representative Bachus may be surprised to learn that, according to the American conservative Union's congressional voting scorecard, Sanders toed the conservative line more often -- at 6.5 percent of the time (must be those Second Amendment votes) -- than did more than 100 of his former House colleagues, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (2.8 percent) and Reps. Henry Waxman (4.7), George Miller (4.5), Barney Frank (4.4), Rosa DeLauro (4.3), Maxine Waters (3.3), Jesse Jackson Jr> (3.1), and Charlie Rangel (3.7).

An alternative explanation may be that all the recent hyper-partisanship on Capitol Hill and the ideological realignment of our two major parties have left us with a national left-of-center party that boasts a sizable contingent of elected officials whose worldviews are -- for all practical purposes -- indistinguishable from those of their leftist counterparts in Europe's socialist parties.

What one calls these lawmakers -- liberals, progressives, statists, or even (gasp) socialists -- is less important than our acknowledgment that the center of gravity for today's liberal is much farther to the left than it has been at any time in our recent history.

Mike Franc is Vice President for Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in National Review Online