Thursday, February 9, 2012

Do Campaign Promises Matter?

I care about contested primaries. A lot. I think everyone should face them, even people I "like". I think they the make candidates stronger in the longer run and most importantly, it is the only real window to make someone earn your support. If there is a political position with enough popular support, during a primary you have leverage to force a candidate to nominally support that stance. Does this mean they will always keep this position? Of course not, but getting someone to commit to supporting something on the record, at least in theory makes it the candidate open to flack from both the media and various outside groups if they decided to flip. But is this actually true?
Obama on the individual mandate:

Also, Obama's pledge to renegotiating NAFTA
His pledge to renegotiate NAFTA was important in gaining support from manufacturing workers in many key primary states. This pledge was clearly never taken seriously once he got in the White House.
President Obama also promised to push for legislation that would allow for judges to rewrite the terms of home mortgages in bankruptcy. Any effort in this direction has been all but invisible since he entered the White House.
My way of choosing the candidate to support in any primary has always been to pick the one with the most progressive record and the one whose stated positions most closely reflect my own. During the 2008 election I thought it was silly when people picked their candidate based who they trusted the most, often with little evidence that that candidate supported the policies of their liking. Well, promises don't matter, not in the slightest, and I would feel differently in 2016 if someone told me they're voting for someone because they "have a feeling" they'll be more progressive while in office. If their stated positions and backgrounds are all relatively similar, why not?

I have to admit that during the 2008 race I didn't follow my own rules either. I was an Edwards supporter because his platform and advisers were significantly more progressive than Clinton or Obama, particularly on Economic issues. Once it was down to Clinton and Obama, I was strong for Obama mostly because of their differences on the Iraq war. But on other issues, I ended up following the same methods I ridiculed. Nominally Clinton took positions to the left of Obama, that I dismissed because of her record and because I didn't trust her in the slightest. On the issue I cared the most about outside the war (passing the Employee Free Choice Act), when Hillary Clinton said she would pass the Employee Free Choice Act  in the first 100 days of her administration it didn't change my mind in the slightest, even as Obama was barely choking through the acronym for the bill in his stump speeches. When Obama talked about reforming NAFTA, I took one look at his advisers and cynically rejected any hope that he would even mention those words once he became president.

I would bet everything I own that Hillary Clinton would not have passed EFCA in the first 100 days. And I was right that there wasn't a chance in hell that Obama would touch NAFTA. But is that good? Shouldn't the promises and positions that candidates take have some sort of importance? When it's clear that they're being broken (like Obama and the mandate), shouldn't there be some political cost for those actions? If what candidates say is completely meaningless, what is the point of primaries in the first place?

We all have priorities and issues we care about more than others. Say your issue was health care, and within that your preference was strongly against the individual mandate. You gave money, you donated time, you did everything to support Barack Obama based on his strong opposition to the individual mandate, as seen in the video above. He gets elected, and immediately embraces the mandate, and no one says anything. No one cares or remembers that this is a complete 180 from his position on one of the most divisive issues of the primary.

My question is this: What should you have done? Should you have done more homework on Obama's advisers, hoping to have a window into whether or not he would keep this promise? Should you have looked deeper into his soul, as Bush did with Putin, to know he wouldn't betray your trust?

I don't know if there is a right answer, but it is something worth thinking about. I'd be curious about your thoughts.


  1. Yeah, I'm really not sure. American democracy seems fundamentally broken to the point where there simply isn't a relationship between voters and their representatives, and what they promise to do or platforms they support don't really matter once they're in office and start answering to their real constituents- big businesses, special interests, just money in general.

    I was thinking for a while about whether I could vote for Obama this year, and for a while was leaning towards yes, because his opponent will likely have or at least be aligned with some even more socially conservative policies. But at the end of the day you can only blow up so many people completely unnecessarily before I just can't vote for you in good conscience anymore.

    Like you said, pretty much every candidate is going to be inherently untrustworthy when they make promises on the campaign trail, and really the only chance we get to respond is by not voting for them again. I'd like to believe in the idea that getting drubbed might move the democrats to the left, or that with a republican president they might move left solely out of instinctual opposition, but recent history shows that democrats pretty much can't be induced to move left by any means voters have at their disposal. So long as both parties have huge streams of corporate money and masses of low-information voters to keep them afloat, I don't really know what can be done.

  2. Yeah, I really agree on the first point. That disconnect has always been there, but I think it's widened to larger levels than previous generations.

  3. I'll fall in line, because at the end of the day Obama won't take away my right to contraception and abortion. I know it shouldn't come down to one issue, and Obama is going to be more left than his opponent. So essentially, I'm going to vote for the not anti-women, anti-gay, anti-very poor people guy. That is not to confuse Obama with being pro- any of these groups, just he is out to get them a little less.