Promises, promises

Jan. 29, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

This month, now that politicians across the country have been sworn into office, we will begin to see how many of their promises are kept.

The public knows that every politician uses promises to win elections. Although promises play a critical role in campaigns, the public knows many politicians fail to follow through.

Campaign promises can cover the entire waterfront. Candidates vow to cure the ills of society (often beginning with taxes), but including groundbreaking improvements in the economy, employment, education and infrastructure and eliminating government corruption. Of course, if it's a national office, the promises also include the politician's stance on war and foreign affairs. On the state and local levels, politicians often try to collect more votes by promising to solve specific problems or to help special interest groups achieve their goals.

A 1984 study found that about 75 percent of the commitments made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept.

Perhaps the most regrettable statement that George H.W. Bush ever made was, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” The pledge came during Bush’s speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention and was consistent with his statements during the campaign. Many Bush supporters believed that the pledge helped propel him to victory. After he became president, he found the government dealing with a large deficit (sound familiar?) and ultimately agreed to raise taxes as a way of reducing it.

More recent data show President Obama, during his first four years in office, has done very well in carrying on the tradition of breaking promises — although he did keep his pledge about a “universal” health-care law. Some of the things that he vowed to do, but has not, includes closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, allowing George Bush-era tax cuts to expire, passing immigration reform and restricting former lobbyists from serving in his administration. 

It is difficult to know which promises are made simply to appeal to certain special interest groups and which ones are made because the candidate actually believes that it is important policy. For example, as a candidate in 2008, Obama repeatedly said that his intention was to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. He called it “a recruitment tool for al Qaeda.” For a brief period after he took office, the discussion about closing the facility continued, but the subject soon faded away.    

Before making promises, presidential and Congressional candidates might consider a sobering fact: the Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, gave us three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. We refer to this condition as a “balance of power,” a concept established in the U.S. Constitution. One branch may try to act unilaterally — as through presidential executive orders — but such moves can be ambushed by the action of another branch. So regardless of a candidate’s promises and good intentions, their efforts can be curtailed by those who disagree. That is as it should be.

On the state level, Governor McCrory and the legislative candidates made some rather bold campaign promises. In Lee County, last fall, we saw commitments made by commissioner candidates about the changes they’d bring about. 

We look forward to monitoring how well these elected officials, at all levels of government, keep their promises — and fulfill their respective obligations to leave things in better shape than they found them.