What 8 Years of Senate Votes Reveal About Clinton
Roll calls suggest she's what she says she is: a liberal with a centrist tinge
Now that her dominance of the Acela primaries has moved Hillary Clinton’s nomination to the cusp of mathematical certainty, millions of voters will soon start looking for evidence to shape their judgment about her this fall.
The eight years Clinton spent in Congress produced an ocean of information that might help predict how her presidency would look. For the undecided in the electorate, there may be nothing more useful than parsing her voting record as the junior Democratic senator from New York.
In the main, the 2,364 roll call votes she cast between 2001 and 2008 reflect a center-left and slightly hawkish ideology that’s quite comparable to the way she’s been representing herself as a candidate in 2016. She voted with today’s Democratic mainstream far more often than not, but she strayed from party orthodoxy just frequently enough to create space on her liberal flank.
That’s the opening Sen. Bernie Sanders sought relentlessly to capitalize on this year — and which, once her nomination is assured, Clinton’s team hopes will suggest to independents and even some Republicans that she’s willing at least to consider policy feints toward the center.
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The volume of evidence in her voting record is big enough to imply that Clinton was genuinely, if only slightly, less liberally monolithic than her GOP detractors continue to portray — at least during her eight years as the first and still only first lady to hold an elected federal office.
The bottom line from all those roll calls over so many years would be almost impossible to precisely calibrate, even with the help of the most politically savvy and calculating staff.
Clinton worked so assiduously to cultivate an initial reputation as a New York-focused workhorse, not a global celebrity show horse, that she declined almost all Washington reporters’ interview requests until her third year in office. At that point, she began describing herself as part of a “tradition of American progressivism” with a healthy dose of pragmatism — language remarkably similar to the “progressive who gets things done” label she’s affixed to herself in the current campaign.
“I think the groups with whom I’ve worked and advocated for know that I’m on their side,” she told CQ Roll Call in 2003. “But I’m not 100 percent on any side.”
More Likely to Buck Bush
During her time in the Senate, which overlapped exactly with George W. Bush’s time in the White House, she voted the way he wanted 252 times and opposed his wishes 259 times – meaning she supported the Republican president 49 percent of the time. Only 11 fellow Democratic senators who participated in a majority of the Bush era’s presidential support votes – which CQ Roll Call defines as roll calls where the president’s views were clearly expressed in advance – bucked the Republican president more often than Clinton did.
Three-dozen Democratic colleagues who were around for most of Bush’s presidency took his side more frequently than she did on the amendments, legislation and confirmations he cared about. As a result, the average in the caucus, which then had a bigger share of moderates than it does now, was 54 percent. (Sanders represented Vermont in the Senate only in Bush’s final two years, supporting his wishes just 32 percent of the time.)
While voters in the primaries have been reminded of one ballot Clinton cast far more than any other — joining most other Democratic senators in 2002 in favor of authorizing the Iraq war — thereafter she routinely opposed Bush’s conduct of the war. She voted to require him to set a timetable for withdrawing troops, for example, and in favor of forcing the administration to give Congress unclassified reports on the progress of reconstruction.
Clinton was a consistent vote for Bush on homeland security policy, including backing his first contentious alterations to the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act. But she was a reliable opponent of Bush’s economic policies, including opposing the trade liberalization agreement with much of Central America. And she opposed a long list of White House nominations, including John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court, Alberto R. Gonzales to be attorney general, Porter J. Goss to run the CIA and Michael O. Leavitt to direct the EPA.
Voting the Party Line, Usually
The other longstanding CQ Roll Call vote study, which measures party unity, assigns Clinton to the more emphatic edge of her party’s liberal mainstream.
On the 1,390 votes she cast in which most senators from one party voted differently from most senators across the aisle, Clinton went against the Democratic grain only 49 times – yielding a 96.5 percent party unity score. That is identical to the number during those years for John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee and Clinton’s successor as secretary of state.
Just nine of the Democrats who participated in most of that period’s party unity votes toed the party line more regularly — and the Senate Democratic average was significantly lower, 88 percent, a reflection of an era when many of the party’s senators survived politically in “red” states by routinely bucking the leadership. (In the two years they were together in Senate, Sanders’ number was 97 percent.)
How Special Interests Saw Her
During her Senate career, Clinton’s voting record won solid ratings from advocacy groups aligned with her party’s base and low approval scores from groups seen as bellwethers of mainstream conservative opinion.
She voted the way big labor wanted 95 percent of the time and cast ballots the way social and economic liberals had hoped 90 percent of the time — as calculated by averaging her eight annual scorecards on key floor votes identified by the AFL-CIO and Americans for Democratic Action. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the personification of modern mainstream liberalism, yielded average percentages just a point or two higher.
On the other hand, Clinton managed to side with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on 46 percent of the votes it cared about when she was a senator, and even backed the American Conservative Union position about once in 12 votes. Kennedy, by contrast, sided with the chamber a substantively lower 38 percent of the time and voted the ACU position no more than once every 50 roll calls.