There’s a simple test, says Hillary Rodham Clinton, that voters can use to decide whether she or Barack Obama is the true “agent of change.” Just look at our records, she says, and see who has actually gotten results. The outcome of the race for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination could well be decided by how voters answer that question.
It should be an easy enough test. Clinton has spent seven years as the junior senator from New York, while Obama has spent three years as the junior senator from Illinois. That’s not a lengthy track record for either of them, especially Obama, but it’s long enough that both should have had plenty of opportunities to practice being change agents.
In truth, however, judging by their Senate records, voters could pick either one of them and get more or less the same package. Clinton and Obama may spend the next three weeks before the Super Tuesday primaries yelling about their differences from one another – and looking for any scrap of evidence that they’re the more genuine agent of change – but the reality is that their Senate careers have been more similar than their campaigns would ever admit.
For one thing, their voting records are nearly indistinguishable. Although both have good working relationships with Republicans, Congressional Quarterly’s annual vote studies show that Clinton and Obama both had strongly partisan voting records last year. In fact, both of them joined their fellow Democrats in mostly party-line roll calls more often than their own majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. In the past year, Clinton voted with her party on 98 percent of the questions that pitted a majority of Democrats against a majority of Republicans, while Obama’s score was 97 percent. Reid sided with his party on only 95 percent of those votes.
There was a somewhat bigger difference in the two candidates’ support of President Bush’s policies – a difference that could matter to Democratic voters who want a complete change from the Bush presidency. Clinton voted in support of Bush’s stated positions only 35 percent of the time, while Obama did so 40 percent of the time.
Even there, though, the main reason for Obama’s score was not that he voted with Bush more often than Clinton did, but that he missed several of the votes where Clinton showed up to cast her ballot against Bush’s priorities. But still, both candidates opposed Bush more often than the average for Senate Democrats.
Votes aren’t the only measure of a senator’s work, of course, and they’re hardly the only indication of whether a senator has really tried to change Washington. A risky move, a bold legislative proposal, an action that helped to defuse a big partisan fight, a brokered deal that got a stalled bill moving again – any of these things could qualify as a bid to “move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington,” as Obama defined the challenge in his speech the night he won the Iowa caucuses.
Yet neither Clinton nor Obama has compiled a lengthy track record on any of those measures. Both have some successes they can point to: Obama can claim credit for being a central player, along with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, in the enactment of last year’s lobbying and ethics law; Clinton’s intervention at key points helped pave the way for the creation in 1997 of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP – but that was when she was first lady, not a senator. In both cases, the victories were more the exception than evidence of a pattern of shaking up the system.
“There’s really nothing that suggests that kind of thing in the record of either candidate,” said Michael L. Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
There is one major disagreement that isn’t reflected in their Senate records: Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002, while Obama spoke out against it. Obama has won strong support from anti-war Democrats because of that difference, but because he wasn’t in the Senate at the time, he wasn’t able to cast an official vote against the war. And since he has joined the Senate, his differences with Clinton have virtually disappeared as the two have voted consistently for timetables to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Even Obama, who started the bidding war for the mantle of change with his Iowa victory, may have a hard time withstanding scrutiny of his political record, including his previous years as an Illinois state senator. “The truth of it is that he was not a particularly activist legislator, either in the Illinois Senate or in the United States Senate,” said Robert F. Rich, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.
Risks on the Safe Side
Reaching across the aisle isn’t a problem for either candidate. Both have cosponsored plenty of bills with Republicans, and Clinton, who watched her husband’s impeachment and trial in the winter of 1998 and 1999 at the hands of GOP lawmakers – many of whom would become her colleagues two years later – had to overcome a longer history of partisan tensions to develop those partnerships. But virtually all of Clinton’s and Obama’s bipartisan bills have dealt with safe subjects – sometimes substantive, often parochial, but rarely the kind that would settle the big partisan fights of their time.
And when the two senators had a chance in 2005 to join a group that truly did head off a major partisan brawl – over the Democrats’ filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees – both took a pass. The “Gang of 14,” a bipartisan group of centrist senators, struck a deal that year that short-circuited Republican leaders’ plan to ban such filibusters. The group’s members took heat from their party colleagues and interest groups, but they averted a showdown that could have shut down the Senate. Neither Obama nor Clinton had any role in it.
Obama’s explanation for his decision not to join the group dovetails with the concern Democratic partisans had about it: that because the group agreed to filibuster nominees only in special cases, the deal allowed some controversial Bush nominees to go through. “Given the profiles of some of the judges involved, it was hard to see what judicial nominee might be so much worse as to constitute an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ worthy of filibuster,” Obama wrote in his memoir, “The Audacity of Hope.” (Clinton’s Senate press office did not respond to questions for this story about her absence from the group and other aspects of her Senate record.)
As it turns out, the one presidential candidate who did join the Gang of 14, and even became one of its leaders, was a Republican: John McCain of Arizona, who won his party’s New Hampshire primary last week.
Indeed, in some ways, McCain may fit the description of an “agent of change” in the Senate even better than Clinton or Obama. For example, Meredith McGehee, the policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group, notes that McCain and Feingold took big risks and spent lots of political capital to pass the 2002 campaign finance legislation over opposition in both parties. “Pretty much everyone else pales by comparison,” McGehee said. “If you compare that to Clinton and Obama, I can’t look at either one of them and say, ‘Well, they really went against the odds.’ ”
But for voters who define “change” as a turnaround from Bush’s policies, they’re not likely to get it from McCain – particularly on the Iraq War, which is still overwhelmingly unpopular even though the violence has decreased in recent months. At the very least, those voters can be assured that either Clinton or Obama would represent a break from Bush’s policies.
Shaking up Washington itself, however, is another matter.
Raising the Bar
It’s possible, of course, that voters won’t care much about Clinton and Obama’s Senate records. Indeed, the groundswell of support for Obama, who began his presidential campaign two years after he first set foot in the Senate, suggests that a productive senatorial career isn’t the first thing on the minds of many primary voters. (And, of course, the last person who won the presidency from a seat in Congress, John F. Kennedy 48 years ago, did not have all that distinguished or trail-blazing a legislative record during his eight years in the Senate.)
In New Hampshire, many voters came to the polls with only a surface knowledge of the candidates having little to do with their Senate records – and perhaps more to do with Clinton’s health care work as first lady, for instance, or Obama’s oratory.
In fact, the lack of a deep history with the Senate might even be a positive in the current environment. Given the public’s dismal approval ratings for Congress – 18 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in December – both of the Democratic front-runners might be better off if they denied they ever worked there.
Still, both are trying to make the case that they’ve been working for change while they’ve been in the Senate. Obama’s aides say he took risks on ethics legislation by pushing for an outside commission to enforce the new rules, an idea strongly resisted by most of his Senate colleagues, and by voting against what he considered a “toothless” ethics bill in 2006 even though he was the Democratic leadership’s point man on the bill.
They say Obama has had productive partnerships with Republicans, such as his work with Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on the 2006 law that created a new database of federal spending on grants and loans, as well as his joint efforts with Richard G. Lugar of Indiana on measures to fight the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and create stronger fuel efficiency standards for cars.
Clinton, meanwhile, has a list of initiatives she points to from her Senate years. She notes that she and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – who is supporting McCain for president – sponsored the 2004 law that allows National Guard and reserve members to use the military’s health care system, regardless of whether or not they are deployed. They overcame opposition from the Bush administration and Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who was the chairman of the Armed Services Committee at the time.
In addition, Clinton cites her work with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas on legislation to distribute flu vaccines more efficiently, which led to similar provisions in a 2006 law to improve the nation’s responses to public health emergencies, and another law she wrote in 2006 that provides grants to state and local governments to pay for respite care services for family caregivers.
The bar that Obama and Clinton have set for themselves in their campaign speeches, however, is so high that it would be hard for almost any senator’s record to measure up to it.
In Iowa, Obama promised to get past the anger and bitterness in Washington, “to end the political strategy that’s been all about division and instead make it about addition, to build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.” In New Hampshire, Clinton vowed to “deliver on the promise the government will be of the people, by the people and for the people, not just the privileged few; to deliver on the promise that every generation will have their shot at the American dream.”
As Mezey put it, “Who would you say that about in American politics?”
Small Steps, Big Leaps
What emerges from their Senate records is largely a picture of different interests and different styles. Obama shows a consistent interest in making government more open and more efficient, while Clinton has continued the focus on health care that she started as first lady, though in a far more incremental way than the full-blown overhaul she and her husband attempted in 1993-94.
In addition to helping to create the database of federal spending, Obama sided with Republicans who wanted stronger rules for disclosure of earmarks in the lobbying and ethics law, and last year he tried to set an example by releasing a lengthy list of earmarks he had requested in the annual spending bills. He also cosponsored a law Bush signed in December to guarantee faster responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Obama also worked with Coburn on a 2006 law that banned the use of non-competitive contracts for post-disaster reconstruction projects that aren’t emergencies, and with Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana on a provision in last month’s fiscal 2008 omnibus spending law that requires contracts to be withheld from companies that have not paid their taxes.
Clinton, meanwhile, has continued her interest in health care by working on legislation to improve mental health services, require better research into how drugs affect children, develop better health information technology, provide better treatment of HIV and address the national shortage of nurses.
Clinton’s general approach to legislating is more cautious than her rival’s. In the Senate, she has perfected the incremental, bite-size approach that Bill Clinton largely relied on after the failure of his universal health insurance plan at the start of his presidency. She has focused her efforts on such measures as demonstration projects to improve mental health care for the elderly, access to health care for legal immigrant children and pregnant women, aid to states to create voluntary preschool programs, and a section of the “No Child Left Behind” education law that authorizes funds for recruiting and retaining good teachers and principals.
Those efforts could allow Clinton to argue that she has pursued change in manageable steps, rather than in giant leaps that might have been too much for the political system to handle – especially given the polarized political environment and the fact that the Democrats were in the minority for most of the years she has served in the Senate.
“She has been an agent of change within the context of the political environment,” said Sharyn O’Halloran, a political science professor at Columbia University who has studied Clinton’s Senate record. “Where she has been effective is in building a bipartisan coalition to support an agenda and taking small, incremental steps toward that agenda.”
Obama has worked on his share of incremental measures as well, but he has also shown more of a tendency to think outside the box and push the limits of political support on some measures – only to be forced to back away from them.
In last year’s ethics debate, for example, Obama had to drop his support for an outside ethics commission in the face of strong Senate opposition. And a similar enforcement proposal he supported – an amendment by independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut to create an independent Office of Public Integrity to investigate ethics violations – received only 27 votes.
Obama has been praised for creative thinking in another signature proposal, a “health care for hybrids” bill he introduced in 2005 and again last year that offered to help automakers pay for their retiree health care costs as an incentive to build more fuel efficient vehicles. Unfortunately for Obama, his thinking may have been a little too creative for the automakers. They didn’t ask for it, they say, and they don’t want it. The bill has gone nowhere.
“It is not something that the auto industry has been actively seeking,” said Mark Kemmer, director of the public policy office at General Motors Corp. “We’re a bit concerned about trying to tie together two issues that are largely unrelated. It adds a level of complexity that would be hard to sort out.”
Ironically, it is now Clinton who is taking the bigger risk in the two campaigns’ health care plans. Clinton’s proposal calls for an individual mandate – requiring everyone to buy health insurance – to guarantee that all Americans will have some kind of health coverage. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, now the only other potentially viable candidate in the Democratic field, would do the same. Obama, however, has no such requirement for anyone except children.
At a debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 5, Obama said he had avoided a mandate for adults because he would rather focus on making health care less expensive. “I don’t meet people who are trying to avoid getting health care,” he said. “The problem is, they can’t afford it.”
Many health care experts, however, say it would be impossible to get everyone into the system without making health coverage mandatory for individuals or employers. “Politically, Sens. Clinton and Edwards are taking the riskier position,” said Rich of the University of Illinois.
In their voting records, Clinton and Obama have been loyal Democrats who have opposed Bush on legislation more often than the average for their party in the Senate. Running for president, though, has not made either of them significantly more partisan.
In her seven years in the Senate, Clinton’s record of voting with her party has fluctuated from a high of 98 percent in 2003 to a low of 93 percent in 2006, before returning to 98 percent last year. Obama, in his three years, was more consistently partisan: 97 percent in 2005, 96 percent in 2006 and back to 97 percent last year.
The two have almost parallel records in voting on issues on which Bush has stated a position, opposing him about two-thirds of the time in 2005 and 2007 and about half the time during the election year of 2006, when Senate Democrats in general were more cooperative with the president.
Obama and Clinton have disagreed with each other on only three of the 38 key votes Congressional Quarterly identifies for each year and on which they both participated. Of those, only one – a 2005 bill limiting class action lawsuits, which Obama supported and Clinton opposed – could be seen as a clear ideological disagreement.
Obama’s vote for an energy bill, which Clinton has criticized, appears to have been determined by a parochial concern: ethanol subsidies important to Illinois. Clinton’s opposition to a measure to keep the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the Department of Homeland Security, which Obama and most other Democrats supported, was based on a non-ideological disagreement about the best way to improve the agency’s performance.
The few times they voted against the majority of their party colleagues last year – five for Clinton, six for Obama – reflect some differences in their views but also in political friendships. Clinton voted against an amendment to the immigration bill that would have removed a requirement for some foreign visitors to return to their countries before renewing their visas, reflecting a harder-line view of illegal immigration than many of her fellow Democrats.
Obama sided with Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who wanted greater disclosure of earmarks in the ethics bill, by voting against an attempt by Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin – Obama’s home-state colleague – to kill DeMint’s disclosure amendment. Obama told DeMint he’d been persuaded by DeMint’s floor speech.
Obama also voted for a measure by Coburn, his frequent partner on government ethics measures, to delete $100 million in emergency funding for the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions – money Coburn said would be spent to “help politicians have a party.”
And both Clinton and Obama broke with a narrow majority of their party last year in voting against an amendment by Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont that would have continued the current system of guaranteeing each state a minimum share of homeland security grants no matter whether they are considered terrorism targets. Clinton and Obama represent states with big cities that think they deserve a greater share of the grants.
On the Rim
Though Obama and Clinton have genuine accomplishments, especially if their records are expanded beyond their Senate years, in some cases they have claimed a more crucial role in legislation than they actually played.
Obama and Feingold had a central role in shaping last year’s lobbying and ethics package, and both stayed involved through the final negotiations with the House last summer, according to McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. Toward the end, though, Obama’s staff largely handled his share of the work because he was spending more time on the campaign trail, McGehee said.
And although Clinton has been trying to put Obama on the defensive about what she sees as weaknesses in the law – such as a ban on sit-down meals for lawmakers, but not stand-up receptions – the overall measure was stronger than most advocates expected, considering the amount of resistance past ethics initiatives have encountered, McGehee said.
“Is it perfect? No. Did we get everything we wanted? No. Are there going to be problems? Of course,” she said. “But to kind of dismiss it with a wave of the hand is unfair to what happened.”
Clinton, for her part, can claim an influential role in creating SCHIP a decade ago, a bipartisan achievement at the time that has now run into turmoil as Bush has vetoed Democrats’ attempts to expand it. As first lady in 1996, Clinton helped shape internal debates by arguing that the administration should focus on covering children in the next year’s budget proposal, according to Chris Jennings, who was the top health care adviser in the White House at the time. Clinton’s involvement helped steer the focus away from other uninsured groups who were then under consideration, such as the temporarily unemployed.
She also pushed for a mention of the children’s health proposal in the 1997 State of the Union address, which gave it a higher place on the congressional agenda. And Clinton called top Senate Democrats to push for a higher level of funding for the program, helping to convince senators to approve $24 billion for the initiative rather than the $16 billion the House wanted, Jennings said.
Likewise, if Obama’s record is expanded to include the years before he came to Washington, he can take credit for other initiatives. As a state senator, he wrote a law that required police interrogations in Illinois to be videotaped in cases that could lead to the death penalty, an initiative that required delicate negotiations between the police and death penalty opponents. He also helped pass ethics legislation in Illinois and helped create a state-level earned income tax credit for low-income workers.
In other cases, though, a close examination shows that Clinton and Obama’s involvement in major legislative breakthroughs in the U.S. Senate may have been less than decisive.
For example, Obama’s aides say the fuel efficiency bill he cosponsored with Lugar helped pave the way for the agreement that led to the stricter mileage standards in the new energy law, ending years of resistance to such measures. The Obama-Lugar bill did help the effort by reframing fuel efficiency standards as a national security issue, not just an environmental issue, said Eli Hopson of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan advocacy group.
But another lobbyist who followed the bill closely said the true turning point that broke the years of deadlock was the work by Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democrat Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii – fellow World War II veterans and longtime friends – that persuaded GOP holdouts to drop their opposition.
Likewise, Clinton has claimed credit for sponsoring the provision of last year’s college-cost reduction law that limits student loan payments to 15 percent of their monthly income. Clinton did push for the provision, and it was a “priority for her,” said Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But Kennedy, who chairs the Senate education committee, also had sponsored a bill on the subject, and he simply folded it into the college bill – suggesting that there was not a lot of resistance to overcome.
Fortunately for both Obama and Clinton, there may be an escape clause if anyone raises too many questions about their records. The key to claiming the mantle of change, as Obama has discovered and Clinton is now learning, may be to make the campaign as much about the voters as about themselves. Mezey, of DePaul University, recalls being inspired in his youth by John F. Kennedy – not because of Kennedy’s Senate record, which was lackluster, but because of the promise of generational change. Now, he says he sees the same excitement in his students as they listen to Obama’s lyrical speeches.
“The reason our campaign has always been different is because it’s not just about what I will do as president,” Obama said in New Hampshire. “It’s also about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it.” If either Obama or Clinton rides the wave of change to the White House, however, the future won’t depend on what the voters can do. It will depend on what the new president can do.
Clea Benson contributed to this story.