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The Unavoidable Empty Campaign Promise

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/candidates2.jpgSen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCpix)

As the presidential campaigns head toward the Democratic and Republican conventions, the candidates are making new promises about how they’ll end the war in Iraq, revive the economy, fix the schools, end the threat of nuclear proliferation and get everyone else to either love (Barack Obama) or respect (John McCain) the United States. No matter what the specific details are, these promises have something in common: they’re sweeping, eye-catching, and unlikely to be realized. They should be viewed as aspirations rather than concrete pledges.

And thank goodness for that. The truth is that campaign promises have become the equivalent of subprime mortgages—enticing and dangerous. As any salesperson knows, you can’t sell someone something they don’t want to buy. The candidates are engaging in wish-fulfillment even as they know fulfilling those wishes is probably next to impossible. No matter. It feels good for both the candidates and the public, at least until rude realities, at home and abroad, intrude.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Does anyone really want Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to hike taxes in the middle of recession—or for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to plunge the economy into further debt by enacting a round of fresh tax cuts? No way. Nor should anyone put much stock in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s latest attempt to revive the ailing health-care system. Whatever emerges will be a product of compromise — not a quality Clinton is famous for — or, as with her last attempt to change the system, there will be no movement on health care. For all her talk of results versus lofty talk, it’s not clear what she can deliver. Anyway, rather than a fantastically baroque Clinton plan, better the devil you know, I say, than the one you don’t.

It’s something that Americans and their presidents seem to know — even if they don’t want to acknowledge it publicly. It isn’t that candidates are simply liars — though that can sometimes be the case. It’s that they’re confronted with realities that differ wildly from being on the hustings as a carefree candidate.

Consider the record, whether it’s Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. They’ve always made extravagant promises to their followers, only to back away from them once on office. Most often, their promises have centered on war—either claiming they’ll keep America out of one or end a war that it is already entangle in.

Perhaps one of the most flagrant examples is Wilson who won the presidency by declaring that he would keep the U.S. out of war. He ended up, of course, fighting the “war to end all wars,” as the European aristocracies slaughtered each other in a kind of civil war. Wilson set the U.S. on the path to becoming a great power—he intervened, among other places, in Cuba, Honduras, Mexico, Haiti and Nicaragua. So much for his campaign pledge to stick to domestic rather than foreign affairs.

Then there is Roosevelt. He, too, stated that American boys would not be sent to Europe on his watch in 1940. Of course, Roosevelt was already conniving in every way possible to support the British with Lend-Lease and to stop Nazi influence in South America. The Roosevelt administration even falsely claimed that it had found a secret plan for a Nazi empire in South America. Of course, Roosevelt was right about the need for U.S. intervention to stop both Japanese and German aggression. But Americans clearly wanted to wallow, as long as possible, in the illusion that they could remain divorced from international realities — and in his campaign Roosevelt was happy to oblige them.

During the Cold War, the issue of contention wasn’t always whether the United States should enter conflicts, but, rather, the strength of its military arsenal. Kennedy ran in 1960 denouncing Dwight D. Eisenhower for failing to match the Soviets in the nuclear arms-race. It was malarkey, but it worked. As his opponent Nixon fumed, Kennedy made outlandish promises about reviving America. Once in office, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara acknowledged that there was no missile gap. The one campaign promise that Kennedy did keep, however, was to counter the Soviet Union in the Third World, in contrast to the Eisenhower administration. America’s involvement in Vietnam had begun. Sometimes the worst thing is when presidents do keep their word.

But didn’t Reagan satisfy his followers by winning the Cold War? Isn’t that a sign of a campaign promise fulfilled? Not exactly.

While Reagan upped the defense budget, he performed a U-turn in his second term—to the intense dismay of his loyalists. They saw him as betraying his principles by agreeing to arms-control agreements with the Kremlin. In a sense, he was. But once again, it was a very good thing that he did. Peaceful coexistence rather than confrontation ensued, even if the cold warriors grumbled about it.

The zig-zagging of presidents continued after Reagan. George H.W. Bush raised taxes after he stated he wouldn’t. Clinton ran by promising a new social compact and ended up slashing the welfare rolls. He also promised he would punish the “butchers of Beijing” and did nothing of the sort. Instead, trade with China became the mantra of his administration.

In 2000 George W. Bush said America needed to be “humble” in its approach abroad. A cynic might suggest that the best way to determine the policies of a future president is to look at what they’re saying and expect the opposite.

Indeed, the recently defrocked Obama advisor, Samantha Power, was on to something when she told the BBC that his administration would not be able to pull out of Iraq as quickly as he was pledging. Quite correct.

But don’t blame Hillary Clinton or Obama for their stretchers. Unlike the peddlers of subprime mortgages, they don’t assume there’s someone to bail them out if they flop once in office. They know they can’t pass the problem off the others. The good news, then, is that, more likely than not, they will conveniently forget most of what they promised back on the campaign trail.

That’s not hypocrisy. It’s realism.

  • Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of “They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons.”*

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