January/ February 2012 Campaign Promises

What they say is how they'll govern.

By Jonathan Bernstein

For illustrations of this, it’s useful to look back on the last few elections, including at least one—the close 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore—in which many pundits and voters (not to mention Ralph Nader) believed that it didn’t matter what happened. As it turned out, of course, some of the things that Bush did that Gore might not have done were only dimly predictable from the campaign. But in fact the 2000 campaign was a good guide to many of Bush’s initiatives as president, from No Child Left Behind to his faith-based initiative to, most notably, his tax and budget preferences.

A look back at the Republican debates leading into the primaries makes that very clear. Republicans held a debate in Iowa in December 1999, just before the caucuses (this was the debate in which Bush was asked about his favorite philosopher, and he answered, “Christ”). Other than pandering to social conservatives, what did Bush promise to do if he was elected? If we look at public policy issues mentioned in the debate, Bush supported the following: ethanol; trade agreements as a key way of boosting the economy, including easier trade with China; missile defense, and withdrawing from the ABM treaty; more military spending; and the status quo (but tougher) on drugs. These are all ideas he went on to support as president. His proposed tax cuts were mentioned in that debate a few times, as well.

Particularly interesting, I think, was Bush’s rhetoric on missile defense: “No, our country must not retreat. We must not worry about what the Russians and Chinese think. What we need to do is lead the world to peace. And that’s exactly the kind of president I intend to be.” And it was exactly the kind of president he turned out to be, with regard to foreign policy—never worrying about what other nations thought, considering any type of accommodation or compromise an unacceptable “retreat,” and imagining the most bellicose actions, including, in this case, withdrawing from a treaty and building a new generation of weapons, to be “lead[ing] the world to peace.”

Things are not so different when one turns to Barack Obama. According to Politifact’s “Obameter,” Obama made 508 separate promises during the campaign. Of these, he has fulfilled, by the Obameter’s count, 158, or just under a third—everything from ordering the troop surge in Afghanistan to removing don’t ask, don’t tell to reforming health care to reducing strategic nuclear weapons. He has broken, again according to Politifact’s count, fifty-four promises, just over 10 percent. But even on these, such as failing to end the Bush tax rates for upper-income taxpayers and passing “card check” for unions, generally the story is that Obama wound up placing a low priority on some items and was defeated on them. What I think is most telling is that of the original 508 promises, only two—two!—are “not yet rated,” implying that there’s been no action at all. What the Obameter is really telling us is the same thing that political scientists have found: presidents certainly try to carry out their campaign promises, and they succeed in many cases, although they’ll push harder on some things than on others, and they are sometimes defeated or forced to compromise. Campaign promises set the presidential agenda, even when they don’t tell you which items will pan out and which won’t.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

Let’s return to George H. W. Bush’s “kinder, gentler” speech, the one in which he made his (later broken) tax pledge. The first thing that’s notable about that speech is how few policy promises are contained in it; all candidates feature a lot of rhetorical flourishes in their convention speeches, but Bush’s was almost entirely composed of them. That in itself was a good predictor of his presidency, especially on the domestic side, in that Bush’s presidency was marked by passivity in domestic policy. But to the extent that he took policy positions, they were ideas on which he mostly followed through, from abortion to gun control to a vow to “make sure the disabled are included in the mainstream,” a pledge he redeemed by signing the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. The discarded tax pledge, as it turned out, was clearly an exception.

So as you listen to Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republicans as they debate and make speeches and release policy papers, don’t assume that it’s all meaningless, empty rhetoric that will be dropped once the campaign is over and governing begins. Don’t assume, either, that since the Republican nominee will no doubt move (rhetorically) to the center after clinching the nomination, specific pledges made in the primary season will be left behind—remember the story of George W. Bush and tax cuts. The truth is that careful observation of the candidates really can tell us a good deal of what they’ll do—and what they’ll be like—as president.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Thad on January 05, 2012 2:59 PM:

    Do we have a better source than Politifact? I'm not inclined to trust them after that "It's a filthy lie to say Paul Ryan would end Medicare, because the completely different program he wants to implement would still be called Medicare" nonsense.

  • skeptonomist on January 06, 2012 12:12 PM:

    The people who wrote Obama's speeches on fighting Wall Street and human rights (detainment without trial etc.) must have been thrown off the bus before the inauguration, because very little of this came through into actual policy. Actually, Obama had appointed several people to economic positions whose actions were in contradiction to what the speeches said. So, pay attention to appointments, not speeches.

  • Chris on January 06, 2012 2:05 PM:

    "...Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut, thereby destroying the rationale for the Forbes campaign." George W. Bush couldn't pronounce half the words in this sentence. He simply said and did what Rove and Cheney told him to - for eight years.

  • Jimo on January 06, 2012 2:28 PM:

    Yeah, but after the 2011 Lie of the Year fiasco, who believes PolitiFact any longer? Sheesh.

  • mol on January 07, 2012 3:36 PM:

    These are not just "exceptions":
    I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence.
    I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building.
    A nation-building corps from America. Absolutely not.
    He [Gore] believes in nation building. I would be very careful ...

    The two budget-busting nation-building projects that violated these promises were the among biggest and most destructive events of the last decade.

    The fact that he may have followed through on some other things hardly matters when it comes to something of this magnitude.

  • prohb on January 08, 2012 12:08 AM:

    These article are some of the most insightful....and chilling ...... I have ever read. This really could happen. How have Americans been so fooled and manipulated by the Republican Messaging Machine?

    We should also look at what a possible Romney administration would look like - all the different kinds of Cabinet (those he keeps), Deputy Cabinet, and hidden, non-voted on, people he will have working in the Executive Branch. You know he will kow-tow to the Tea Party . and appoint many of them. This is a very scary thought. How did we get to this point????

  • zandru on January 09, 2012 4:10 PM:

    "Careful observation" of what a candidate says and does, eh?

    Another way of phrasing that would be "Don't take what he says at face value." And this kind of contradicts the apparent thesis of the entire article, doesn't it?

  • Brian McDaniel on January 10, 2012 12:31 AM:

    "...Bush ran on a radical regressive tax cut." Isn't it well understood that the Bush tax cuts actually made the Federal tax system more progressive (in the sense that people with greater income bore a greater percentage of the tax burden)? Its well-cited, e.g. here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_policy_of_the_George_W._Bush_administration