Ideology: Bush vs. Kerry

Northwestern University political scientist Jeffery A. Jenkins [jamesotb – otbblog] has an interesting piece in the Chicago Tribune on the issue.

Ideologically, where does President Bush stand? Some liberals contend that he is an extremist, more conservative than Ronald Reagan, a proponent of rolling back the many social and economic reforms of the New Deal and Great Society.

At the same time, some conservatives argue that he is an advocate of expanding the federal government, typified by the recent huge expansion in Medicare, and is thus out of step with the laissez-faire brand of economics that underlies traditional conservatism.


Bush is positioned near the dividing line between the center-right and right quartiles of the party. So, while clearly right of center, he is not part of the most conservative segment of the party, anchored historically by the likes of Sens. Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms.

He is considerably more conservative than Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, somewhat more conservative than Richard Nixon, slightly more conservative than his father, George H.W. Bush, but less conservative than Reagan.


What about Kerry, the would-be president?

Should he become president, what should we expect? How does this left-leaning moderate compare to other recent Democratic presidents?

In fact, only Lyndon Johnson appears more conservative than Kerry; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton appear slightly more liberal; and John F. Kennedy, to whom Kerry is often compared, appears considerably more liberal than the Massachusetts senator trying to follow in his footsteps.

Dan Drezner points us to an article by Keith Poole which explains Jenkins’ methodology.

The problem I have with Poole’s coding methodology is that it’s excessively time bound. To compare Bush 43 to Reagan or Kerry to Carter ignores massive shifts in public opinion during those time periods. The “center” is not a spot on a map; it’s a median of current attitudes. I’d think the ACU/ADA ratings are much more useful than Poole’s, since the comparison is made against one’s contemporaries. What matters in terms of the current cycle is how Bush compares to Kerry, not how either compares to historical figures from a bygone era when different issues predominated. Indeed, the main example given in the Poole piece was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Essentially every member of both Houses of Congress would support that legislation today.

No prominent Republican is currently arguing that homosexuals shouldn’t have the right to cohabitate. Indeed, virtually all even argue that homosexual couples ought be permitted most of the benefits of marriage; the debate is merely over the actual use of the label “marriage” to describe that relationship. During Jimmy Carter’s administration–or, indeed, Ronald Reagan’s–that would have been a position advocated by only the most extreme leftists.

By contrast, there is no serious Democrat arguing for the equivalent of a nuclear freeze today. All of the significant contenders for the presidential nomination believed war with Afghanistan was the right action after 9/11 and much of their criticism of Bush for the Iraq war is that it diverted resources against killing terrorists. Similiarly, on the economic front, all but the most extreme Democrats at least pay lip service to the idea that tax cuts stimulate the economy; the debate is merely about how to target them to screw over “the rich.”

Update: Chris Lawrence clarifies the methodology in question. My interpretation based on the article and a quick readthrough of Poole is a bit off. Jeff Jenkins offers further clarification of his arguments in the comments below and makes a very cogent point about the limitations of the methodology for comparing presidents to legislators in Drezner’s comment section.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jeff Jenkins says:

    I agree and disagree with your critique of Poole-Rosenthal scores. You’re right that the “center” of the larger citizen distribution does shift, based on shifts in the public’s “mood.” However, the variant of the Poole-Rosenthal technology that I incorporated in my piece has a dynamic element built into it… in a sense, all members of Congress across time were estimated at the same time. So the scores are legit, in that they are directly comparable across time. But I do agree with your associated point — we’ve seen a dramatic polarization in the last two decades, with intrapartisan tightening also occuring. So, the relative meaning of terms like “centrist” or “extremist” does change.

    Re: ADA scores… unless you incorporate some manner of “inflation adjustment” (akin to the dynamic property in the Poole-Rosenthal estimation), you’re susceptible to time-variant measurement issues. Check out a piece by Tim Groseclose (APSR 1999, I believe) for background.