Examining the Ideology of Presidents

As a part of an ongoing project of mine to determine ideological scores for politicians who served in the House and Senate from 1861 to present, presidents who served in either chamber have been scored as well. My scale, Mike’s Conservative Index, goes from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most conservative score. It can be reversed to “Liberal” score, but bear in mind this is not optimal as this was designed to determine conservatism and liberals may select different key votes to determine ideology. Among the presidents I have examined and given scores, these are based on their legislative records from 1861-present. This means that there are no scores for some very notable presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan as none of them served in the House or Senate. I may calculate scores for them in the future based on records of presidential requests and announced positions, but bear in mind especially for presidents before FDR these may be of limited usefulness. Additionally, these scores tell us nothing about the ethics or efficacy of these men as president, nor do they tell us their record as president. For instance, Senator Harry S. Truman certainly was at least a little bit more conservative than President Harry S. Truman.

Rutherford B. Hayes – 50%

Hayes served one term in the House during the Johnson Administration and established a reputation as a moderate there. What helped push him into the presidency, however, was being an effective governor of Ohio.

James A. Garfield – 86%

Despite his limited time in office, Garfield had a much longer career in the House and proved to be conservative, including on currency, labor, and taxation.

Benjamin Harrison – 95%

Harrison served one term in the Senate from Indiana, and he managed to build up a staunchly conservative record. His presidency does not necessarily communicate this to the modern observer since on domestic policy it was characterized most by two laws passed through inter-party compromises: the McKinley Tariff and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Under his administration, the first anti-trust law was passed, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. However, this one surprisingly cannot be placed on the left-right scale as only one senator voted against since the law granted sufficient flexibility to businesses to satisfy conservatives.

William McKinley – 95%

Before becoming president, McKinley was a notable member of Congress and served as Ohio’s governor. He crafted the McKinley Tariff, which was so unpopular it played a significant role in the Republicans losing Congress in the 1890 election. The 1896 election is also the first one that to a modern viewer is clearly Republican right vs. Democrat left (Bryan). McKinley, even from the time he started serving in the 1870s, had a conservative reputation and was known as a staunch supporter of the gold standard, supporter of tariffs, and opponent of the income tax.

Warren G. Harding – 95%

Harding served slightly less than one term in the Senate and was a safe bet as a conservative vote and voice. On issues that were not meat and potatoes Republican, however, he tended to dodge controversy. Harding backed the popular social policies pushed in his time, including Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, and immigration restriction. His administration was committed to reducing domestic taxes, raising tariffs, and cutting government expenditures.

Harry S. Truman – 13%

Truman was elected to the Senate in 1934 as a New Deal Democrat and supported most of FDR’s domestic policies while completely supporting his foreign policy. As president, he pushed (mostly unsuccessfully) the Fair Deal to expand the New Deal but was successful in pursuing an internationalist foreign policy with post-war foreign aid packages.

John F. Kennedy – 13%

John F. Kennedy’s legislative record from an ideological perspective seems to be a bell curve. At the start of his House career, he voted as a staunch liberal, but in the Senate he seemed more on the moderately liberal side, at least until he thought of running for president, when his record shifted and in his last session in the Senate he scored a 0%. His presidency for the most part was liberal in his pushing of the New Frontier, which was sometimes defeated due to the Conservative Coalition in Congress.

Lyndon B. Johnson – 20%

Lyndon B. Johnson is an interesting case. His legislative record spans from his House career, 1937-49, to his Senate career, 1949-61. Johnson started his career as a staunch New Dealer and FDR saw in him a potential successor. He moved somewhat to the right later in his legislative career, but his highest score for a session was only a 34%, during the last two years of the Truman Administration. Sure, 34% is not good by liberal standards, but its even worse by conservative standards. Of course, his presidency on domestic issues proved significantly more liberal than his time as a legislator.

Richard M. Nixon – 78%

Where to place Richard Milhous Nixon politically has always been a subject of controversy. Indeed, I get a lot of disagreement when I assert that he was moderately conservative in his outlook. Liberals in his time liked to paint him as ultra-conservative, but in retrospect they no longer seem to think that true as the era of anti-Vietnam War left-wing radicalism slides further into the past. Staunch conservatives like to paint him as staunchly liberal and it is true that ultra-conservatives had significant differences with Nixon as president. His score of 78% reflects his time in the House, 1947-50, and the Senate, 1950-53. Nixon’s legislative record mostly reflected conservative views on domestic policy with some significant departures on foreign policy. He sided with the internationalist wing of the party, and thus was a good pick for Eisenhower, who wanted someone who would back his foreign policy while appealing to the conservative base. As president, he vetoed some liberal legislation but also backed policies that the Republicans would not have accepted from a Democratic president, including guaranteed minimum income.

Gerald Ford – 80%

Gerald Ford was quite like Nixon in political outlook: primarily favored conservative policies on domestic issues while embracing internationalism. He has a much longer legislative record than Nixon, since his voting record in the House spans 1949 to 1973. Thus, we have on record his votes on Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, and all major civil rights bills of the civil rights era. As president, he reluctantly supported a measure bailing out New York City after initially rejecting it but largely spent his time vetoing Democratic legislation, including measures on surface mining, public works bills, housing aid, agriculture programs, and weakening the Hatch Act.

George H.W. Bush – 85%

Bush’s score comes from the four years he represented Houston in Congress. He proved a conservative on most questions but sometimes cast votes that ticked off the Republican base, thus falling short of ultra-conservative. His presidency largely proved the same if not more so, especially with his acceptance of a raise in income taxes as part of a budget deal with the Democrats. Like his two Republican predecessor presidents, Bush tended to support foreign aid bills.

Barack Obama – 9%

Obama’s four years in the Senate were mostly characterized by opposition to the policies of the Bush Administration. The one issue he seemed to side with conservatives on consistently was for restricting pork, one issue for sure that he and Senator John McCain were on the same page. As president, he pursued a liberal agenda with the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus package that focused on the use of government spending and jobs, and unsuccessful efforts at “cap and trade” and “card check” legislation. These policies I called back in 2009 the “four horsemen of the political apocalypse”. However, he was forced to retreat into deal-making on a domestic level due to the election of a Republican Congress in 2010.

Bonus…Unsuccessful Presidential Candidates:

James G. Blaine, 1884 – 78%

James B. Weaver, 1892 – 18%

William Jennings Bryan, 1896, 1900, 1908 – 6%

Tom Watson, 1904 – 3%

James M. Cox, 1920 – 17%

John W. Davis, 1924 – 21%

Barry Goldwater, 1964 – 95%

Hubert Humphrey, 1968 – 1%

George McGovern, 1972 – 7%

John B. Anderson, 1980 – 63%

Walter Mondale, 1984 – 1%

Bob Dole, 1996 – 87%

Al Gore, 2000 – 14%

John F. Kerry, 2004 – Not yet calculated.

John McCain, 2008 – Not yet calculated.

Mitt Romney, 2012 – Not yet calculated.

Hillary Clinton, 2016 – 7%

Joe Biden, 2020? – 11%

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