In a last-minute effort to protect a Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts, President Barack Obama sang the praises of an independent voting record. In a Boston campaign appearance on Jan. 17, 2010, for Democrat Martha Coakley, Obama took aim at her opponent, Republican Scott Brown, for voting too much along party lines in the Massachusetts Senate.
"I do want somebody who's independent," Obama said. "I want a senator who's always going to put the interests of working folks all across Massachusetts first -- ahead of party, ahead of special interests.
"So I hear (Coakley's) opponent is calling himself an independent," Obama said. "Well, you've got to look under the hood because what you learn makes you wonder. Now, as a (state) legislator, he voted with the Republicans 96 percent of the time -- 96 percent of the time. It's hard to suggest that he's going to be significantly independent from the Republican agenda. When you listen closely to what he’s been saying, it’s very clear that he’s going to do exactly the same thing in Washington."
The president's comments gave us a serious case of deja vu that sent our Flip-O-Meter spinning.
But first we'll look into the accuracy of the president's claim, not only because it was disputed by Brown (and later seemingly embraced), but also because it's kind of our thing here at PolitiFact.
And we found that Obama is guilty of a little cherry-picking. In September, the Coakley campaign commissioned an analysis of Brown's voting record from Insta Trac, a nonpartisan Massachusetts legislative bill tracking service. As the Coakley campaign has hammered often, the firm found that since 2007, Brown has voted with the Republican Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei 96 percent of the time. But Brown has been in the Massachusetts Senate since 2004, and he voted with Tisei's predecessor, Brian Lees, 82 percent of the time. We verified those numbers with Insta Trac president Michael Segal.
Also, Brown served for six years in the Massachusetts House, and according to Insta Trac statistics, he voted with Republican leadership there about 92 percent of the time. We tallied all of Brown's votes in the state House and Senate (3,104 votes in all) and confirmed the Coakley campaign's claim that he has voted with Republican leadership 90 percent of the time as a state legislator. We think that probably would be a fairer number for Obama to cite, unless he qualified that he was just talking about Brown's voting record over the past two years.
But our aim here is not to quibble with Obama's number. Rather it's that Obama was citing these voting records to dispel Brown's claims of independence.
Indeed, that 96 percent figure Obama cited rang a bell with us at PolitiFact. That's the percentage Obama himself voted with the Democrats when he was in the U.S. Senate. We happen to know that number because we fact-checked Sarah Palin's claim about it from the vice presidential debate in 2008. She earned a True.
It's based on a calculation of party unity from Congressional Quarterly that measures how often members vote with their party on bills where the parties split. Presumably, that percentage would be much higher if you included all votes (even ones where Democrats and Republicans alike supported a bill) -- such as Brown's number does.
Asked about that voting record on ABC's This Week on Sept. 7, 2008, Obama defended his record and said that host George Stephanopoulos was "conflating two arguments. One argument is bipartisanship. One argument has to do with change."
"Who is the more likely to break with their party?" Stephanopoulos asked.
"Well, no. That wasn't the question, right? That's not the point," Obama said. "The point is if you believe that George Bush has run this economy into the ground and mismanaged our foreign policy, who's more likely to change those policies? And I don't think there's any dispute that that would be me. Now, if it has to do with who has broken with their party, the first couple of years that I was in the Senate, the Republicans controlled the agenda, which meant that most of those votes are votes against efforts by the Republicans on issues that I feel very strongly about. So I have no problem defending a record of saying, no, we shouldn't cut benefits to vulnerable populations. No, I don't think that we should suspend habeas corpus, critical issues."
Earlier in the campaign, Obama dismissed as "silly" a rating by the National Journal that concluded he was more liberal than Ted Kennedy. Obama said some of the votes the National Journal considered liberal had bipartisan appeal. Yet in Brown's case, all votes, including bipartisan procedural ones, would count as votes in lockstep with party leaders.
So pot, meet kettle. During the presidential campaign, Obama defended his 96 percent record as a strong stand for his principles. But when Brown has the same rating in Masschusetts, he's not independent enough. That earns Obama a Full Flop.