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Charlie Crist: A puzzle wrapped in an enigma shrouded in mystery


In a bid to pick up Democratic votes without losing every last Republican vote, Charlie Crist is refusing to say who he'll caucus with if he's elected to the Senate in November. The fact that that's smart politics suggests that our politics isn't very smart: Individual politicians don't matter. At least, they don't matter as much as we like to think.

Olympia Snowe is arguably the most independent Republican in the Senate -- and she's stuck with her party on 67.3 percent of votes in this Congress. That is to say, if you knew nothing about Snowe save that she was a Republican, you could predict her vote about 70 percent of the time.

And Snowe is actually uncommonly willing to vote with the other side. Ben Nelson is in Snowe territory, voting with the Democrats 67.6 percent of the time, and so is Susan Collins. But that's about it. Scott Brown voted with the GOP 82.1 percent of the time. Joe Lieberman was there for the Democrats 90.6 percent of the time. Lindsey Graham showed up for the Republicans more than 92 percent of the time. (You can look up any politician you please here.) The reality is that the single most important thing to know about any politician is which party they'll caucus with. Full stop.

Campaigns are built to fool us into thinking that we're voting for individuals. We learn about the candidate's family, her job, her background -- even her dog. But we're primarily voting for parties. The parties have just learned we're more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as individuals. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 30, 2010; 10:32 AM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
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Next: Private accounts don't make Social Security solvent


Crist is the perfect example of a guy who's so intertwined in politics -- he's not effective anymore. He's willing to become wishy-washy, compromise his beliefs--only so He can Win.
In the meantimes, Americans Lose.

Posted by: ohioan | August 30, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

If it wasn't for the politics of misdirection,
we'd have no politics at all.

Posted by: LosGatosCA | August 30, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Say hello to Senator Rubio.

Posted by: scarlota | August 30, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

"Joe Lieberman was there for the Democrats 90.6 percent of the time."

So what's that say about how Republicans and Tea Party folks are demanding ideological purity? Apparently, for Lieberman, 90.6 percent purity wasn't good enough in his last election cycle.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 30, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Checked my constitution and can't find the word "caucus" anywhere. Sounds like another one of those silly Senate traditions that perhaps is best done away with.

Posted by: Hieronymous | August 30, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

The single most important vote your representative will cast in Congress is for Majority Leader/Speaker. Moderate Republicans are still going to vote in a Republican Speaker/Majority Leader, and that's going to mean a Republican legislative agenda. In the current group of Republican legislators I have very little confidence that that will be a moderage agenda.

Posted by: MosBen | August 30, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

the problem with my congressman Jon Adler is not that he's out of step with what I think/feel/believe because he's not. Its that his party's leader Ms Nancy is so out of step with what I think/feel/believe and he votes with her 90% of the time. Do I think Jon Runyan will be a better congressman, NO. Do I think he'll be a better representative for me, YES. Also if it allows Ms. Nancy to step down from her leadership position count me in.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 30, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

@ visionbrkr:

I agree with your take and I think it is exactly what Ezra wants people to see as well. The party of the person you ellect, and the leadership they will have to follow, are far more important in the general election than the individual's resume.

But, the quality of the person does matter when it comes to working effectively as a legislature. Ezra's arguement leads me to believe the best place to address the quality and effectiveness is in the primary. In the general election a second (or third) tier politician of the party you support is probably better then a top tier candidate in the party you oppose.

Posted by: brianbefano | August 30, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse


so then wouldn't it behoove both parties to elect to leadership posts more "centered" legislators if possible? While it might be difficult for Republicans to find centered leaders lately i'm sure there are plenty of more centered Democrats than Nancy Pelosi. I wonder how many votes come November will be anti-her as opposed to pro any one candidate.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 30, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, so when someone else reports that Charlie Crist has been a closeted homosexual for his whole life, will the Washington Post act surprised, as it did with Ken Mehlman and Larry Craig?

Posted by: MagicDog1 | August 30, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

No clown face... which issues she flips on 30% of the time makes a world of difference to people... Also all those procedural votes skew that stuff.... Also this ignores the legislative process... Didn't you spend months whining about the undue influence of a few Senators in the health care process.

Posted by: cdosquared5 | August 30, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Would interesting to see a breakdown like this:
% of Republicans who vote w/party more than 90% of time
% of Democrats who vote w/party more than 90% of time

Same for 80-89; 70-79%, and 60-69% ... doesn't sound like you need to go lower than that. This would give you a good judge of how partisan each party is ... you'd need to use %'s versus #'s to allow for comparison relative to size of party/influence.

Posted by: marco_lugon | August 30, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse has a fairly good score that does a good job objectively screening out procedural votes that typically dominate these numbers.

In short, the Democratic caucus is substantially more ideologically diverse compared to the Republican one. Once you get past the 3-4 "moderates", they vote together almost uniformly.

Posted by: lol-lol | August 30, 2010 7:10 PM | Report abuse


Republicans tried the "anti-Pelosi" strategy in all the special House elections and came up empty every single time.

Posted by: lol-lol | August 30, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: When you find yourself writing a Briticism such as "full stop" or "spot on" or "at the end of the day", pause and try to think of the word or phrase an American would use, and then do it that way.

Posted by: thehersch | August 30, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

Ridiculous. A Senator is far more than his partisan voting average. Senators decide what is in these bills before they ever reach the floor.

Are you honestly trying to convince us that Joe Lieberman (90.6%), a man who threatened to derail the core piece of the Democratic agenda by filibustering health care if there was even a token public option, is interchangeable with Bernie Sanders (93.8%), who was fighting for a single-payer system?

Joe has a high partisan voting score because he doesn't have to vote against the Democratic party. The threat of the filibuster is sufficient to stop a bill. His opposition has been key to pushing legislation to the right. And it works the same way for every other member of the Senate. The deals are made before the votes are cast. And the partisanship score reflects none of that.

Posted by: ericma | August 30, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

I would like to know something I couldn't find in the votes database. For someone such as Arlen Specter who has switched parties, what was his percentage of voting with the Republicans before switching compared to voting with the Democrats afterward?

Posted by: gromit82 | August 30, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Ezra has a point about the importance of party affiliation, but he's using overly simplistic logic to make it. Overall voting percentages make for political hit ads, but not much more. What's interesting is the votes that the candidate differed from his or her party, and abstractly at least, why they differed.

80% of those votes may mean nothing to me and the other 20% may be important, massive pieces of legislation like health care reform. Judging from my occasional trips to CSPAN, the ratio is probably more like 99:1. I couldn't care less if Susan Collins votes to dedicate some federal highway in the name of Ronald Reagan.

Also, as mentioned above, senators on the fence in a divided senate can affect controversial legislation a lot just by threatening to vote against cloture. Lieberman's voting record on the major issues says less about Lieberman than it does the Democratic Party's willingness to bend to his will.

Posted by: agaudio | August 31, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I think the voting percentages are rather misleading, at least for senators of the majority party - they don't account for times when party leadership chooses not to go forward with a bill because they are expected to oppose it, or for bills that are mangled as the price for their vote.

Posted by: JMGK | August 31, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Parties are built to fool us into thinking that we're voting for values. We learn about the party's demographic, traditional stances, norms, culture-- even famous party members. But we're primarily voting for the military-industrial complex. The state has just learned we're more likely to vote for them if they disguise themselves as parties. And American politics would work better if we understood that.

Posted by: getjiggly | September 1, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

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