Despite what you’ve heard, Americans don’t want politicians who tell it like it is.
We want politicians who tell it like it isn’t.
This election cycle, politicians’ promises have gotten bigger, bolder and less tethered to reality than those of previous presidential races. Voters appear to want candidates who will deliver nothing short of their wildest partisan dreams (and delusions), alongside the unconditional silence and submission of their ideological adversaries.
If presidential candidates once promised the sun, moon and stars, this time around they’re promising multiple galaxies, plus the turtles all the way down.
Candidates on both the left and right have pledged complete overhauls on nearly every issue voters care about (and some they don’t). That includes health care, reproductive rights, the social safety net, immigration, the Constitution, even basic arithmetic.
Donald Trump, whose most attractive quality is supposedly his unfiltered frankness, has built his campaign around the preposterous promise that Mexico will pay for a “big, beautiful wall” on the southern U.S. border, despite all evidence to the contrary — including both common sense and loud, unequivocal refusals from Mexican leaders themselves.
He also promises that he can get government to swiftly, cheaply and “humanely” round up and deport 11 million people living in the shadows. And his base — which has, until now, long believed in government incompetence and inefficacy above almost any other political principle — willingly suspends disbelief.
Bernie Sanders likewise promises his base a single-payer “Medicare for all” health-care plan, despite the fact that Congress has voted more than 60 times to repeal the (comparatively modest) Affordable Care Act.
On some issues, the candidates’ plans are quantifiably more grandiose than those of their predecessors. Take for example their tax proposals.
Sure, huge tax cuts have been a staple of Republican presidential candidates for at least the past two decades. One (George W. Bush) even enacted those cuts. But the scale of the cuts that Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio propose would be unprecedented, according to calculations from Len Burman, director of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
Measured as a share of the economy, the three biggest tax cuts of the past six decades were enacted by Bush, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. Of those, the largest was Reagan’s suite of tax changes, which cumulatively led to a revenue loss equaling 2.1 percent of gross domestic product. By contrast, over the next decade, Rubio would cut taxes by an estimated 2.6 percent of GDP, Cruz by 3.6 percent and Donald Trump by 4.0 percent.
In other words, candidates are promising to out-Reagan Reagan.
Perhaps, you might muse, politicians just propose especially fantastical cuts while they’re on the campaign trail. But by my own calculations, today’s candidates are promising cuts that are also far larger than what was proposed by Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996.
The story on the left is not so different.
Sanders would raise taxes by about 5.9 percent of GDP, based on revenue estimates from the business-backed Tax Foundation. This, too, is multiples higher than any tax increase enacted in the postwar era.
The largest single tax overhaul of all time — just like the largest deportation of all time, or the largest health-care reform initiative, or the most ambitious constitutional revisions — seems especially improbable over the next four years, regardless of who secures the White House.
We are already seeing unprecedented levels of obstructionism, gridlock and allergy to compromise. In 2015, the Senate confirmed the fewest civilian nominations — including federal judges, ambassadors, regulatory officials and executive branch appointees — for the first session of a Congress in three decades, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The Senate Banking Committee has not voted a single nominee out of its committee this session, the first time that’s happened in at least 50 years.
And yet some presidential candidates now promise they’ll be even less cooperative, and concede even less territory to the other side, in the service of delivering the grand delusions they’ve pledged their voters. Quoth Cruz on “Meet the Press”: “This is how we’ve gotten in the mess we’re in now, is Republicans who cut deals with Democrats.”
In today’s political climate, pragmatism and cooperation appear toxic; big, beautiful, uncompromising promises score votes.
Of course, big, beautiful uncompromising promises are also impossible to keep. So what happens come 2017 when voters get disillusioned by another round of broken vows? What fantasies will an ever-angrier electorate have to be promised then?