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Campaign Rhetoric and Political Reality, Part 3

- March 1, 2008

These are the last two installments of this edition of “Inside the Monkey Cage.” See also Part 1 and Part 2.

John’s basic point is that Obama’s “post-partisanship” campaign rhetoric isn’t credible and will, if he is elected, ultimately disappoint. On this point John will get no argument from me. Instead, I’m going to up the ante and argue that it’s not just Obama’s “post-partisanship” campaign rhetoric, but also the far more conventional campaign rhetoric of “If elected, here’s what I’m going to accomplish…,” that lacks credibility.

My argument comes in two parts.

First, once they’re in office, presidents often do the opposite of what their campaign rhetoric led people to expect. Examples:

* Lyndon Johnson pledges that he’ll never allow the blood of American boys to be shed on Asian soil and then commits the U.S. to a massive troop buildup there.
* Richard Nixon, ardent Cold Warrior, kitchen debater, and all-around anti-communist tough guy, ushers in détente, opens up relations with China, and signs the SALT treaty.
* Ronald Reagan, implacable foe of the “Evil Empire,” negotiates an arms limitation treaty with the Soviets.
* George H.W. Bush proclaims “Read my lips: No new taxes,” and then signs new tax legislation.
* George W. Bush denounces any intervention strategy aimed at nation-building and undertaken without a clear exit strategy, and then does exactly that in Iraq.

Are these just odd, isolated cases, notably precisely because they’re so rare? Robert Goodin, in one of my all-time favorite political science articles (gated), argued that this recurring phenomenon is quite understandable:

bq. We judge politicians’ preferences and political characters from their past records and pronouncements. We rationally come to trust those who seem steadfastly to share our own values and sentiments. If such politicians then suddenly start advocating a policy which they – and we – have always found objectionable, saying that they have reluctantly concluded that it is now necessary or desirable, we would be much more willing to believe this coming from them than had it come from one of our long-standing opponents.

In essence, a Nixon could go to China, but a Humphrey couldn’t have (see this article by two economists reinventing Goodin’s wheel). Political leaders have greater leeway to move toward positions they’ve opposed in the past than to push even farther in directions with which they’ve been associated.

Second, the presidency isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. When a new president takes office, public expectations about what he’s going to achieve run high, but as time passes, expectations decline and so, predictably, does the president’s standing in the polls. A large part of the reason is that we – not just the general public, but also those of us who should know better – expect too much from presidents. We build them up as larger than life. (In a 1945 Gallup Poll, 28% called Franklin Roosevelt “the greatest person, living or dead, in world history,” compared with 15% for Jesus. The Kennedy assassination evoked feelings similar to those felt at the death of a close friend or relative, to an extent that not even 9/11 matched. And if not larger-than-life good, then larger than life bad: Back in 1999, the New York Post – hardly a dispassionate political source, of course, but stay with me – ran an online poll that asked, among other things, about the most evil people of the last millennium. The winner? Adolf Hitler, followed by Bill Clinton. Then, after Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Josef Mengle, came Hillary Clinton.)

Now add to these outsized conceptions of the presidency the fact that presidents have limited powers and many political opponents. A president can’t simply make things happen or prevent things from happening. Much of what happens during a president’s watch – international events, perturbations of the economy, and so on — just happens, irrespective of anything the president does or doesn’t do, although the president may well end up getting the credit or taking the blame for it. But except in the most unusual circumstances (FDR or LBJ), the president won’t be able to ramrod through a broad set of new policies and programs that address the myriad issues that a policy-oriented campaigner will have highlighted. That’s just not the way our system works. Rather, new presidents soon discover the need for compromise, trade-offs, and strategic retreats. They learn that they can’t afford to commit the resources that it would take to fight every battle, so they quietly abandon many of the ideas that won them cheers in their campaign speeches.

Bottom line? “Post-partisanship” is a fairy tale. Score one against idealistic, ambiguous campaign claptrap. But so is “When I am elected, here’s how I’m going to fix all our problems.” Score one against traditional campaign policy-speak.