Is Obama a socialist?

This seems to be the question of the weekend, with e-mails a-plenty arriving with links to Jim Geraghty, Worldwide Standard, and the Kansas City Star.  About the best that can be said was said, in fact, by John McCain: ““I don’t know. All I know is his voting record, and that’s what people usually judge their elected representatives by.”  His other statement, that Obama’s voting record is “more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont,” is unfortunately not terribly accurate.

National Journal made headlines earlier by declaring Barack Obama the most liberal Senator in 2007 — the basis for McCain’s claim. However, that calculation came from a limited number of bills considered by NJ, 99 in total, a significant sample but not comprehensive. Further, as NJ states, they picked their sample specifically to find differences between the candidates, not for overall voting patterns.

Instead, look at the Poole reports. Dr. Keith Poole compiles an index of roll-call votes for the House and Senate that have better than 0.5% opposition in each year, which in the Senate only excludes unanimous votes. In 2007, the sample was 388 votes, far larger than NJ’s 99. The index shows how often each member votes with their own party as a measure of partisan and ideological leaning. For 2007, that put Barack Obama as the 11th most liberal Senator, well behind Sanders at 3rd. (Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd finished 1-2.) That actually makes him more liberal in the 110th than he was in his freshman session in the 109th, where he finished 21st, much closer to the center of his caucus.

In 2007, McCain was the eighth-most conservative Senator, and in 2005-6, he was the second most conservative Senator, behind only Jon Kyl.

John McCormack then quotes this passage from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which Obama the college student attends socialist rallies:

In search of some inspiration, I went to hear Kwame Toure, formerly Stokely Carmichael of SNCC and Black Power fame, speak at Columbia. At the entrance to the auditorium, two women, one black, one Asian, were selling Marxist literature and arguing with each other about Trotsky’s place in history. Inside, Toure was proposing a program to establish ties between Africa and Harlem that would circumvent white capitalist imperialism. At the end of his remarks, a thin young woman with glasses asked if such a program was practical given the state of African economies and the immediate needs facing black Americans. Toure cut her off midsentence. “It’s only the brainwashing that you’ve received that makes it impractical, sister,” he said. His eyes glowed inward as he spoke, the eyes of a madman or a saint. The woman remained standing for several minutes while she was upbraided for her bourgeois attitudes. People began to file out. Outside the auditorium, the two Marxists were now shouting at the top of their lungs.

“Stalinist pig!”

“Reformist bitch!”

It was like a bad dream. I wandered down Broadway, imagining myself standing on the edge of the Lincoln Memorial and looking out over an empty pavilion, debris scattering in the wind. The movement had died years ago, shattered into a thousand fragments. Every path to change was well-trodden, every strategy exhausted. And with each defeat, even those with the best intentions could end up further and further removed from the struggles of those they purported to serve.

McCormack interprets this as Obama wanting to bring unity to the socialist movement, but that’s a real stretch. On its face, the passage acknowledges the death of the movemen; in tone, it resounds with exasperation.  Maybe Obama pined for its renewal, but this passage doesn’t do anything to prove that.  College students attend lots of rallies and say pretty stupid things, but life experience usually wrings the silliness out of them.  If we have to go back this far to find “proof” of Obama’s socialism, than I’d say the effort has already proven itself worthless.

However, that’s not to say that Obama doesn’t believe in the Leftist principles of top-down statist control and redistributionism.  One only need to consider his policies on capital-gains taxes, new federal spending, and massive expansion of regulatory and bureaucratic management to understand that much about him.  Obama may not be a Bernie Sanders Socialist, but his proposals rely heavily on the same philosophy.  Rather than concern ourselves about a couple of college rallies, let’s focus on Barack Obama’s current rallies and the policies he declares at them.  That’s enough.