I’ve been taking a hard look at the policy platforms of the Republican presidential contenders — with some surprising results.
For all the attention that Jon Huntsman Jr. got as the race’s sole moderate, his plan called for more — and more regressive — tax cuts than anything Mitt Romney put forward, and his approach to entitlement reform was well to Romney’s right. Rick Santorum’s post-Iowa boomlet focused on his blue-collar credentials, but on close analysis, his plans were far more regressive than those offered by silver-spoon candidates Romney and Huntsman. And though Romney is probably the most moderate candidate in the race, his campaign is well to the right of George W. Bush’s 2000 effort.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
A look at how the 2012 Republican candidates for president differ on key issues.
I keep running into the same reaction: Who cares? It’s a fool’s game to spend too much time analyzing campaign policy proposals. Everyone knows that politicians make all kinds of crazy promises during elections that they jettison as soon as they take office.
At least everyone thinks they know that. But it’s not true. In an article for the January-February issue of the Washington Monthly, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein argues that the evidence on this point is clear: “Presidents usually try to enact the policies they advocate during the campaign.”
We can all think of exceptions, of course. George H.W. Bush told the country to read his lips — a turn of speech that’s always confused me, incidentally; is lip-reading really so much more accurate than listening? — and then he raised taxes anyway. But such betrayals are not the rule.
Bernstein relies on two studies from the 1980s to make his point. In 1984, Michael Krukones published “Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors” and found that “about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept.” In 1985, Jeff Fishel published “Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance,” which argues “that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping.”
More recent evidence supports this view, too. PolitiFact.com is tracking more than 500 promises Barack Obama made during the 2008 presidential campaign. It has found he has kept 162, passed a compromised version of 50, and has either been rebuffed by Congress or is making progress toward 238. In only 56 cases — about 10 percent — has Obama broken a promise, and in the biggest of those cases — ending his predecessor’s tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 — there’s a good chance the promise will be kept when the tax cuts expire at the end of this year.
Even the elder Bush’s famed betrayal on taxes shows the importance of campaign promises. Bush, who was dealing with large deficits created, in part, by tax cuts passed by President Ronald Reagan, tried mightily to balance the budget using spending cuts. But Bush wasn’t a dictator, and Congress was controlled by Democrats. So Bush eventually compromised.