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Campaign Rhetoric and Political Reality, Part 4

- March 1, 2008

Lee highlights the significant institutional barriers to turning one’s campaign promises into tangible results once elected. He will get no objection from me on that front.

But I want to ensure that no one interprets Lee’s post as suggesting that campaign promises are “cheap talk” — that is, stuff that candidates say to get elected, without any commitment to following through. Lee’s examples, such as “read my lips: no new taxes,” are good ones, but for every apparently broken promise, there’s a promise kept. Let’s take President Bush. He emphasized education throughout his campaign, and gave us No Child Left Behind. The wisdom of that legislation is hotly debated, but no one can claim that Bush promised to try to improve education and then did nothing about it. In fact, I’d even give Bush a pass on nation-building. By all accounts, he began the Iraq War with no concrete plans for nation-building, and has taken up nation-building only after events on the ground made it necessary.

A working paper by Tracy Sulkin — which, coincidentally, David discussed earlier this week — is relevant here. I’ll elaborate a bit on what she finds, simplifying a bit for brevity’s sake. Tracy looks at the campaign advertising of 391 House candidates in 1998-2002. Using these data, she measures whether candidates discussed various issues. Then she determined whether these candidates took action once in office, e.g., by introducing or co-sponsoring a bill on those issues. (The bills data come from this project, headed by Scott Adler and John Wilkerson.)

Ultimately, she finds significant correlations between discussing an issue and taking action on that issue. This is not a causal argument — in the sense that campaign promises lead to further action. These candidates’ campaign and legislative agendas reflect their past activity and characteristics of their constituency. But, from the voter’s perspective, the correlation is more than enough. The candidates’ campaign rhetoric credibly signal their priorities once in office.

Of course, none of this contradicts Lee’s point about institutional hurdles. For members of Congress, those hurdles are obvious: they can introduce all the bills they want, but much else must happen for any bill to become law. Thus, any voter’s expectations should be tempered. But that doesn’t mean they should regard campaign promises regarding policy as empty rhetoric.

So why, then, regard Obama’s rhetoric regarding the political process with more skepticism? Couldn’t he make good on his promise of “change” in an equivalent way? That is less likely, for the simple reason that changing policy is easier than changing process. It is often possible to cobble together a minimum winning coalition to change policy. Legislators also have an electoral interest in making tangible progress on the problems of the day, or in opposing “progress” if they believe they can credibly argue that it is a bad idea.

But changing the process depends on changing the actors themselves or at least the fundamental ways in which actors do business. While legislators and other interest groups may disagree on the course of policy, they often have a shared interest in the institutional status quo — or at least in those aspects of institutions that a president could foreseeably affect. (Obviously, the minority party in Congress doesn’t like aspects of the status quo, but no president can make the majority party govern in a more inclusive fashion.)

If Obama fails to deliver on this promise of “change,” would it matter? Would it even hurt his chances for reelection, were he to be elected in 2008? Matt Jarvis asks these questions in a comment to my first post. I’ll hoist my reply here. In short, the answer is no. The public doesn’t like politics, but political reform is rarely a salient issue. You would think, for example, that with all of the public’s mistrust of money in politics, campaign finance reform would breeze through Congress. But McCain-Feingold was years in the making, in part because the public cares more about issues like the economy and in fact stops short of major reforms such as full-fledged public financing of campaigns.

So, in 2012, an incumbent President Obama need not be worried if the Washington game looks pretty much the same as it did before. This is perhaps the ultimate irony: the aspect of Obama’s campaign rhetoric that seems particularly appealing to his supporters is the aspect for which he will be least accountable were he elected.

Previous posts on this topic:
Part 1
Part 2