Read Politicians' Lips: They Keep Promises

Contrary to belief, candidates do carry out pledges

Brace yourself. We've reached that point in the quadrennial cycle of US presidential politics when campaign promises begin to fly through the air as fast and thick as a flock of city pigeons.

Last week it was President Clinton's tax credit for higher-education expenses. Soon Bob Dole will release his own tax-cut proposals. As the August conventions approach, the candidates will undoubtedly make vows on subjects ranging from crime to Castro, balanced budgets to Bosnia.

These promises, by themselves, aren't necessarily intended to sway large numbers of voters. Instead, they're typically used to build a larger picture of a candidate - as caring, perhaps, or fiscally responsible.

Often they're tougher to fulfill than candidates imply. That's largely because both Congress and the courts have a big say in what the White House can accomplish.

But that doesn't mean political promises should automatically be dismissed as insincere ploys. In fact, many candidate vows end up as the law of land.

"Studies show that a fair percentage of these things make it into policy," notes presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton University.

This doesn't mean that winning candidates typically make all campaign promises come true, of course. In recent elections there have been a number of major campaign vows that presidents eventually reneged on or found impossible to implement.

Republicans are fond of pointing out that Mr. Clinton promised a middle-class tax cut in 1992 that never appeared. Similarly, as a candidate, Clinton said he'd go easier on Haitian refugees than President Bush did. He reversed that position before he was inaugurated, as boat-borne Haitians threatened to swamp Florida beaches.

Democrats, for their part, like to remind GOP counterparts of Bush's broken pledge: "Read my lips: no new taxes."

Jimmy Carter campaigned on a platform of welfare and health-care reform, among other things. Those issues remain unfixed today. Back in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech in Pittsburgh, in which he promised a balanced budget. Four years later he laughed heartily at an aide's suggestion of how to handle this broken vow: Deny he had ever been to Pittsburgh. (Eventually, FDR owned up by simply saying, "Presidents do make mistakes.")

In general, presidential candidates do tend to overpromise somewhat in their campaigns, say scholars. They do this by implying that if elected they will have more power than in fact they will.

Thus Clinton, in his recent Princeton University speech in New Jersey announcing his proposed college-education tax credit, downplayed the fact that Congress would have to pass legislation on the subject before it could become law. If Capitol Hill remains in GOP hands after November, the tax credit may be unlikely to become a reality, even if Clinton wins reelection.

Mr. Dole, the presumed GOP nominee, has said that "there won't be any liberal judges in the Dole administration" - despite the fact that he will have no power to get rid of liberals already serving on the federal bench.

Though some Dole advisers are urging that their candidate promise a bold, across-the-board 15 percent tax cut, Dole himself reportedly favors more modest approaches. That reserve would reflect a political rule of thumb, say experts: The less Washington experience a candidate has, the more likely he or she is to make sweeping promises. Those from the inside-the-beltway crowd, such as Dole, realize that presidential powers are in fact circumscribed.

"Both [ex-Georgia Governor] Carter and [ex-Arkansas Governor] Clinton came in from way out of town, and they promised a lot," says Charles O. Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

A president's political position at the start of his term is very important when it comes to promise-keeping, notes Mr. Jones. President Johnson promised a lot, but as a former Senate majority leader and legendary legislator he could deliver on many Great Society pledges.

Similarly, in 1980 President Reagan's political fortunes were helped by the fact that Republicans managed a surprise capture of the Senate. Even Democrats felt Mr. Reagan had something of a mandate from voters - which helped pass early his big tax- and budget-cut packages.

Campaigns aren't made or broken by candidate promises, most experts agree. Specific plans often send the press into high gear, but many voters don't remember them or retain only a vague impression of their details.

But vows, brick by brick, help build a candidate's political image. Hardly anyone will remember Clinton's tax-credit pledge at this time next year, says George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M. But right now "it does reinforce a picture of Bill Clinton as being concerned about the underprivileged and increasing America's capital," he says.

And despite Americans' overwhelming cynicism about politics, campaign promises may largely come true. Gerald Pomper, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has extensively researched party platforms, which are indicative of candidate pledges and subsequent legislation. "About two-thirds of presidential platforms are fulfilled," he says.

When presidents fail to enact their promises, it's often because Congress blocked them, say political scientists.

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