It Turns Out That Politicians Keep Their Word

It’s easy to dismiss campaign-trail rhetoric, but candidates actually carry out their campaign promises. 

Jae C. Hong / AP

“When I’m president, I’m a different person.” – Donald Trump

Voters are cynical about many aspects of America’s quadrennial political circus: endless TV ads, superficial media coverage, all those pre-election polls. But that attitude can be taken too far. From building “the wall,” to banning Muslims, to enacting a tax cut three times the size of George W. Bush’s, one striking feature of this year’s campaign is the extent to which some Trump supporters don’t believe he will do what he says he will do.

One example among many: The Wall Street Journal reported that Tom Barrack, a key Trump fundraiser in California, believes that Trump would “adapt and come to logical conclusions” (as opposed to the conclusions he currently reaches). That view is reinforced by the candidate’s own comments: He’s repeatedly said that a President Trump won’t be the same man as Candidate Trump. And reporters spend more time covering Trump’s showmanship—the insult-and-outrage machine he cranks up daily—than his policy agenda.

We’ve seen this movie before. In 2000, the press focused far more on George W. Bush’s compassionate tone and pledge to be a uniter than on the substance of his campaign promises. With the exception of his post-9/11 flip on “nation-building” abroad, Bush surprised many who believed he was a moderate by pushing—and enacting—exactly the conservative policies he promoted when he ran.

Four years ago, Jonathan Bernstein of the Washington Monthly wrote that people who believed Mitt Romney would move left if he got elected were ignoring history. Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition—not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.

As Bernstein notes, political-science research backs this up: Jeff Fishel of American University wrote a book called Presidents and Promises in which he found that, from Kennedy to Reagan, presidents almost always try to keep their campaign commitments. Gerald Pomper of Rutgers tracked party platforms from 1944-1976 and found that two-thirds of the winning candidate’s policy pledges were at least partly fulfilled after four years. Michael Krukones of Bellarmine College wrote a book, Promises and Performance, arguing that presidents from Wilson to Carter kept about three-quarters of their campaign promises.

Politifact is a Pulitzer Prize-winning website put together by the Tampa Bay Times. Since 2009, it has tracked President Obama’s promises and how much progress has been made turning them into action. It found that Obama has been able to deliver on about 70 percent of his 2008 and 2012 campaign promises (either by achieving exactly what he wanted or accepting half a loaf through compromise). 22 percent of his promises are “broken,” almost all of which fall into the category of blocked-by-the-Republicans.

“The press spends a lot of time on the horserace and very little on policy,” said Daniel Schlozman, an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins. “But policies proposed in the campaign are the single best guide to the policies presidents push for and seek to adopt when they’re in office.” Schlozman added that “Hillary Clinton will try her damndest to make happen … what she’s proposing now, and when Donald Trump says he wants to build a wall, he has every intention of building a wall.”

Cynicism about campaign promises is a false sophistication—an indication of ignorance rather than understanding. But what about the notion that Trump’s positions are constantly changing?

In fact, many of Trump’s policy views have been consistent for years. He has long believed that Americans are “screwed” by foreign-trade agreements and pushed for tariffs to punish importer countries. Since the 1990s, he has supported sweeping restrictions on immigration. He wrote in 2011 about building a wall on the southern border, and opposing abortion rights and gun control. Others have been consistent throughout this campaign: his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, attacks on Muslims and Mexicans, dismissal of climate change, opposition to Common Core and Obamacare, and support for tax-rate reductions for the wealthy (even after seeming to waffle on the issue).

To paraphrase Marco Rubio, it is time to dispense with the fiction that candidates do not do what they say they will. With a few famous exceptions—from George H.W. Bush’s “read my lips, no new taxes,” to Barack Obama’s “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it”—presidents enact as much of their campaign agendas as they possibly can. For voters, the rule should be: If you don’t like what a person says as a candidate, you will not like what that person does as a president.