Crazy Eyes Michelle Bachmann -- who, it turns out, can do more than just claim to have been kidnapped by lesbians -- became the latest in what someday will be a long line of Republican politicians to make oddly specific promises about what they'll do once elected when she promised that if elected, the American public will see gas cost less than $2 a gallon.
As promises go, it was somewhat less inspiring than when Obama promised to roll back the tides, but the specificity of the promise -- and the selection of $2 as the number to shoot for -- made me wonder whether this is a new strategy the GOP is using, to make specific promises that get them elected, and then can't be enforced anyway.
Bachmann's promise of $2-a-gallon gas echoes Wisconsin Governor Scott ("Gov. Patsy") Walker's promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term, and both of them made me wonder about the difference between GOP promises and Democrat promises, and whether the oddly specific promise was the natural progression of political tendencies.
Turns out it probably is; examining recent political promises and the differences between Democrats and Republicans shows that when the GOP goes specific, they do it in a certain (highly effective) way, and when the Democrats go specific, they botch the job.
I began with trying to find some political promises that had been made in the last couple of years, and luckily for me, Politifact has compiled lots of them -- and there have been lots of promises. Politifact noted that Obama made over 500 promises in his campaign, and tracks how he's doing on them.
I went first to look at the Obameter to see what he'd promised and how specific it was. Most of the promises (the whole list is here) were general sort of regular old political promises: End tax loopholes. Expand tax credits (no contradiction there, right?)
Some of them had specific numbers, like "$10 billion to help prevent foreclosure," but the "$10 billion" is somewhat offset by the vagueness of the remainder of the promise -- to help homeowners refinance or sell, but not to help all homeowners, blah blah blah.
One was curiously specific in all the wrong ways: "Provide option for a pre-filled out tax form," the specificity of that managing to both remind people about paying taxes and scare them into thinking the IRS was going to demand they sign papers telling them how much to pay.
I only found a few very specific kinds of promises. They were of this sort:
"End income tax for seniors making less than $50,000."
"Create a tax credit of $500 for workers."
Or the slightly more specific:
"Require employers to provide 7 paid sick leave days per year."
That one sounds like it's a specific kind of promise -- the $2-gas kind of promise-- but it wasn't, quite, because that's just the Politifact heading. The actual promise was:
"Require that employers provide seven paid sick days per year – which may be taken on an hourly basis – so that Americans with disabilities can take the time off they need without fear of losing their jobs or a paycheck."I gave up after three pages; and I'll tell you why: Obama never made the kind of specific promise that Gov. Patsy, or Crazy Eyes, did, and I'm reasonably assured of that because I don't remember him doing that.
Specific -- oddly specific-- promises get remembered. If Obama had ever promised 250,000 jobs, or $2-gas, we'd remember it. So after three pages of promises, I was pretty sure Obama had never gotten specific in any kind of effective way.
Effective way is important: look at those promises that qualify as kind of specific from Obama: They're watered down, qualified, limited. When Obama (or most Democrats) get specific, they get too specific, too quickly. They move from platitudes and generalities that people ignore to legislation. It's always either
"I'll stop the oceans from rising"
"I'll take out line 40564(a)(iii) of the Internal Revenue Code for single-income families with less than $405,000 in assets not more than 30% of which are held for retirement."
It may be good government, but it's bad politics, and that's why the Democrats are always playing defense, these days: Because they're bad at politics.
500 promises Obama made -- and all of them are platitudes or legislation. And none of them can be remembered, really. Can they?
Compare that with the GOP. Politifact has a GOP meter, too, compiling promises made in the runup to the 2010 midterms.
Two promises jump out as kind of specific: Make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and repeal ObamaCare. Those were solid promises that are easily explained, but they're not quite the kind of promise I'm looking at, here.
Still, you can see the difference between Obama and the GOP.
Obama on taxes:
Increase capital gains and dividends taxes from 15 to 20 percent for those making more than $250,000 (couples) or $200,000 (single).The GOP on taxes:
Eliminate all oil and gas tax loopholes: "Eliminating special tax breaks for oil and gas companies: including repealing special expensing rules, foreign tax credit benefits, and manufacturing deductions for oil and gas firms."
Eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and start-ups.
Make Bush tax cuts permanent for all incomes: Permanently stop "all tax increases, currently scheduled to take effect January 1, 2011."
Which one's easier to explain? Which one's an easier sell? Which one is better politics? Leave aside the policy goals -- the government -- of the program. Which one can you put on a bumper sticker?
It can be argued that it's easy to have simple slogans when you have simple programs -- and simple minds designing them. If your view is more nuanced, as Democrats tend to be, then your politics should be, too, many argue.
I think that's wrong.
Obama didn't have to legislate from the stump. He could have said "Raise taxes on the rich." Or, if he wanted to avoid that, he could have said "Tax stock sales." Or he could have said "I will refuse to raise taxes on the middle class." Either of those is a specific stance that's easily communicated, far more easily communicated than
The GOP didn't stop with those specific promises. They made even more specific promises of the crowd-pleasing kind. Like this one:
Increase capital gains and dividends taxes from 15 to 20 percent for those making more than $250,000 (couples) or $200,000 (single).
Boehner will fly commercial.That was a promise that if elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner wouldn't use military transports. You know, even though he'd be third in line to run the country.
That's more in line with what I'm thinking about on the subject of weirdly-specific promises. It's a promise that isn't possible to misapprehend or misquote, and allows no wiggle room -- or so it would seem. It's also, like the other specific promises, potentially beyond Boehner's control, not possible to do, and has no measurable effect.
But it is specific -- and specific the way politics has to be, to work, even though it's not specific in the way governing has to be. The promise isn't about government, after all; it's about getting elected in order to govern.
Boehner flying commercial may not matter, period. There was no discussion at the time (or now) about whether it's more or less cost-effective for Boehner to fly commercially or by military, and no discussion about why Speakers of the House use military flights in the first place. (The reason they do is that that Republicans decided the Speaker of the House should have a military jet after 9/11.) There was no discussion of the fact that when a Speaker flies on a military jet, personal use of that jet must be reimbursed.
There was no discussion about whether it made any difference, whatsoever, and also there has been no follow up on whether this was actually done.
That is, in spite of the 38,300 stories on Google about Boehner's promise to fly commercial, nobody has yet determined whether he actually is doing that. (Politifact hasn't yet rated that promise.) One investigation found that travel at taxpayer expense has actually gone up since the GOP took over:
On the House side, lawmakers are on track to go on 35 percent more trips this year than they did last year. Senators spent roughly $1.2 million during the first quarter of 2011, ahead of last year's annualized pace of $4.3 million.So John Boehner will travel commercial -- but he'll travel 35% more than he did last year?
The lack of investigation into the specific promise -- a promise that would be very easy to check on -- tells me something about why 250,000 jobs, and Boehner will fly commercial, and now Crazy Eyes' Two Buck Chuck Gas, are likely the wave of the future: because they are symbolic promises whose enforcement can't really be measured because even if one falls short, there's always an excuse to provide cover.
And because the GOP doesn't care if they don't get re-elected -- or at least, if this specific politician does not get re-elected.
First, about the symbolic nature of the promises. Oddly specific promises get even more oddly specific. Consider Gov. Patsy's 250,000 jobs in his first term. He said:
Instead of reacting to each crisis as it comes, I will develop strategies for creating 250,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses by 2015.Back in May, Planet Money did a story on the 250,000-jobs pledge, noting (in part) that it compelled Gov. Patsy's opponents to come up (belatedly) with their own specific pledges.
Never mind that Gov. Patsy's own Department of Revenue now says that not only will he hit only about 60% of that pledge, and that Gov. Patsy's policies may well drag that number lower. That was never the point of the oddly-specific 250,000 jobs promise.
The point of the 250,000 jobs promise was to make a symbolic point: the GOP is pro jobs! Our policies will promote jobs! and Our policies will be measurable!
Every politician, after all, promises to create jobs. But the GOP was going to give you a yardstick to keep track of them by. That's how certain they were they could do it.
My old law school roommate used to tell me that the secret to lying was in the details: don't say "I was at a friend's house." Say "I was over at Dan's house, playing poker, with Eric and Jim. Jim needed a ride home because he'd been drinking too much 2 buck Chuck."
Specificity = believability. The 250,000 jobs number is a symbol.
And, it's also a symbolic way to get the other side to agree with you. Once put on the spot, Tom Barrett, uninspiringly, had to do something about the jobs numbers. So he first, uninspiringly, said the number was "random," then put out his own job numbers (180,000 in three years) that more or less agreed with Gov. Patsy.
And the message became: everyone in this race thinks the government can create jobs, but Gov. Patsy thinks he can create more.
Symbolism: the first goal of the oddly-specific promise.
Now, about how they can't be measured because of the exit strategy.
I noted that Boehner's promise not to fly military hasn't been checked yet, even by the group that promised to check. Why not? Probably because nobody cares enough -- it was a symbolic promise ("I won't abuse my position... in this one very specific way," a promise that probably reeked of the tobacco from the checks Boehner used to hand out on the Capitol floor) -- and also because if you do find him using a military jet (as he did to go to Iraq and Afghanistan), he can always claim that he had to -- you can't use a commercial jet to go to Iraq, after all.
Oddly-specific promises always have a way out. 250,000 jobs by 2015? What if we don't make it? Well, then, it's the Democrats' fault for leaving the state, or engaging in those costly recalls, or whatever else they do by then. No $2 gas by 2016? We'd have that gas if only we'd drilled more, or the Mideast could get its act together, or those Democrats.
Oddly-specific promises in fact get their power from the very fact that they're beyond the power of the promisor to fulfill. Can Gov. Patsy personally hire 250,000 Wisconsinites to put them to work? No. Can a President Crazy-Eyes Bachmann (shudder) pass a bill mandating that companies charge no more than $2 for gas? No.
The last oddly-specific promise that actually could be measured was George H.W. Bush's no new taxes pledge: that was within his power, and everyone knew it: just don't sign a bill that raises taxes. And although the 1992 election wasn't decided on that issue, it played a role in the public turning against him.
So now, oddly-specific promises are oddly-specific about thing that the GOP can't actually control -- which plays into their hands by suggesting they can do just that, even while they know they can't.
When Crazy Eyes Bachmann promised $2 gas, Jon Huntsman (or, as the voters know him, "Who?") said that wasn't realistic. But Bachmann remains ahead of Huntsman/Who? in the polls.
Nobody ever got elected by telling voters what can't be done, and the GOP in particular is in a bind there, because the GOP's whole platform is that government doesn't work -- so they make promises about how the government will work, but make sure that the promises leave them room to ultimately claim that the government doesn't work.
The quintessential oddly-specific promise is, then, that the promisor will be the one to make the government do something -- usually get out of the way -- that will then cause something else to happen.
Gov. Patsy was going to lower taxes, get rid of red tape, and stop frivolous lawsuits; he was going to get the government out of the way of those jobs, which would then create themselves, I guess.
Bachmann blames government stimulus and drilling bans for high gas prices. Get government out of the way, and gas prices will drop themselves, I guess.
Those promises are, as I said, impossible to measure because of that exit strategy.
If at the end of Gov. Patsy's term, there aren't 250,000 jobs, then I fully expect that the GOP party line will be "we'd have done it if not for all that government." If gas isn't $2 a gallon when a President Crazy Eyes Bachmann (shudder) runs for re-election, then it'll be the fault of those mideasterners, or Pennsylvanians who didn't want their groundwater poisoned, or something.
But, finally, the GOP doesn't care if the promises get fulfilled because the doesn't care if the person making the promise doesn't get re-elected, and neither does the person making the promise.
The modern day GOP is something different than people think it is. It is a political machine driven by a select set of high-powered, high-finance companies and individuals. That political machine is pouring lots of money into politics to set up a world where the business machine can thrive, and that political machine knows that it needs politicians to do that -- but not career politicians.
And so the current GOP is made up not of career politicians -- but of people who don't care about politics as a long-term career.
That's why they can be unpopular, and pass laws that are unpopular, and not worry about recalls or re-elections.
Broken promises, remember, may keep someone from being elected -- but they don't undo past elections. If 2015 comes along and we don't have 250,000 jobs, that won't roll back the clock to 2010 and elect Tom Barrett and undo Act 10 and all the rest. It'll just mean we (maybe) don't get Lamentable Tragedies of Scott Walker II: Electric Boogaloo.
So at best the Democrats can keep Gov. Patsy from getting four more years -- but his 250,000 job pledge already got him in position to wreak havoc.
In July, 2011, Wisconsin's Act 10 went into effect, along with Gov. Patsy's budget, decimating unions, gutting public education funds, reducing local control, and cutting pay and benefits for government workers so drastically that judges and district attorneys were racing to resign... and Wisconsin that same month lost 8,200 jobs.
Wisconsin, in fact, has net gained only 43,000 jobs since January 2010. That's less than 2,400 per month.
But that wasn't the point. Gov. Patsy didn't want to create, and didn't care about creating, 250,000 jobs. He wanted to get into power to put his policies in place, and he's done that. And even if Wisconsin loses jobs over the next three years, he'll have done that and at best Democrats will have to play catch up to try to undo everything that happened because Gov. Patsy understood the power of the oddly-specific pledge.
The GOP knows this. They know you can't hold them to some promises, and that even if you do, it won't matter because they just need the one shot. Put them in charge in 2012 in hopes of getting $2 a gallon gas, and by 2016, you'll be paying $7 a gallon but you won't have ObamaCare or Medicare or Social Security, and what will you do then?
That's the lesson from Wisconsin -- while Tom Barrett uninspiringly attacked Gov. Patsy's number (and then offered an identical number), voters elected Gov. Patsy hoping to get themselves some of those 250,000 jobs.
The problem with that strategy from a personal perspective is that you've got to get politicians who are willing to do something that will be horrendously unpopular -- and might get them tossed out of office. Which is not good, if your career is politics; how are you going to convince someone to do something that's good for you, but not for them?
The answer is: make it good for them, and that's what the modern-day GOP does. They give their failed politicians jobs. FOX news is full of failed politicians who espouse modern-day GOP ideas that made them unelectable at some point or another -- but these people hold jobs, often well-paying jobs, jobs that are cushier than being a politician and pay better. Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee -- these are not serious politicians, not anymore. They existed for the purpose of spreading the message and then getting hired into a different line of work.
This is relatively new in Republican politics -- it was only (relatively) recently that recalled State Senator George Petak cast an unpopular vote and was recalled, and then almost immediately offered a state job anyway. But it is getting more brazen: shortly after passing Act 10, The Hillbilly Fitzgeralds flew to Washington to attend a fundraiser held by a major Republican group.
So the GOP can make the oddly-specific promise, secure in the knowledge that it's not enforceable, and reap all kinds of rewards. Obama, facing a Crazy Eyes Bachmann GOP nominee, will have to either agree that gas should be $2 a gallon, or will have to tell Americans that, no, under him, they'll pay higher gas prices. And if Crazy Eyes Bachmann wins, then in four years, gas won't be $2 a gallon, but we won't have Social Security or Medicare, either.
Whoever the Democrats run against Gov. Patsy will likely have to bear the blame for Wisconsin not getting 250,000 jobs.
And even if the Democrats win in Wisconsin, in 2012 (hopefully) or 2014, what then? Even if President Crazy Eyes Bachmann (shudder) is only a one-term president, there'll have been four years of corporate tax loopholes, four years of underfunded education and health care cuts and union busting, four years of flight of skilled workers away from government jobs, so they're not starting from scratch, they're starting in the hole.
And they'll have to try to legislate their way out of that hole while a new bunch of specific promisors comes out of the woodwork to fight them, candidates who are supported and egged on by new FOX and Friends hosts Scott Walker and Michele Bachmann.