When President Obama pledged to oppose an individual mandate, push a public option, bring the troops home and close down Guantanamo Bay, he was clearly pandering to the anti-War left. But after election, his reluctance to follow through on these promises, while pragmatic, made liars out of his supporters who viewed him as less hawkish than both Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Republicans have made it a hobby to call out these pivots as cracks in the president’s “perfect” veneer.
Either Obama knew he was going to have to break these promises, or more likely, he made those promises with the full faith that he’d be able to fulfill them. So either he’s cynical or he’s naive. It’s hard to blame supporters for thinking he’d keep his promises — but why would he make such grand promises when slighter ones might have done?
But conservatives should avoid making the same mistake. A candidate that makes big promises is going to make liars out of them too. In fact, signing on to a candidate that takes on the ideal conservative policy position without detailing the path to success makes the conservative coalition a cheap date to a purely ideological candidate without the tactical sensibility to accomplish much. Winning an election, let alone a primary, isn’t a sign of future policy success.
Michael Barone made a similar point in his column earlier this month:
Strong peaceniks and strong Tea Partiers alike tend to be attracted to candidates who promise to do impossible things — cut off funding for a war, default on the national debt. Facing such constituencies, competing candidates will try not to leave any room between them and the Democratic left or the Republican right. ….
Sometime between now and the first caucuses and primaries some of these candidates may present a more serious fiscal and economic platform than any of them has so far. In the meantime it’s tempting to seek quick votes by promising the impossible and pledging to do things no president ever would.
The problem is that once you get in office this way you may end up “leading from behind.” Just ask Barack Obama.
It’s not that Tea Partiers are unrealistic — their support for politicians such as Chris Christie (who has stated he won’t run) indicates an eye for results. But buyers beware: If they elect a nominee without experience building coalitions whose platform is a Tea Party wishlist, Democrats won’t hesitate to call out GOP hypocrisy when the promises aren’t kept. When a “conservative” candidate is offering you the world, he’s really selling you a bridge.