In the minds of many jaded voters, politicians will promise anything to get elected - the moon, the stars, and a newly solvent Social Security system to boot. But once in office? Forget about it.
Surprisingly, though, history tells a somewhat different tale. And as this year's presidential pledges pile up, the record shows that politicians are actually pretty good at keeping their word - or at least part of it. Whatever their motivations - desire for a solid legacy or hounding by interest groups, or both - they usually plug hard to deliver the basics of their plans.
Success depends, though, on whether a president is working with a Congress led by his own party. Or whether the cost of his programs adds up to more than even a surplus-giddy Washington can afford.
But "presidents do, by and large, keep their campaign promises," says political scientist George Edwards at Texas A&M University in College Station.
This year, Al Gore's pledges include vows to cut the poverty rate from 12 percent to less than 10 percent and to shrink the crime rate each year he's in office. His Social Security plan would set up retirement accounts with government-funded savings incentives at a cost of at least $200 billion over 10 years. The Democratic nominee would also fund universal preschool for four-year-olds. Cost: about $50 billion.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush promises a $1.3 trillion tax cut, a prescription-drug benefit for seniors that could cost at least $158 billion over 10 years (but is cheaper than Mr. Gore's $253 billion plan), and a unilateral roll-out of a national missile-defense system. This week Mr. Bush, the Republican nominee, unveiled a plan to add $3.75 billion over five years to federal spending for national parks.
Sure, recent history is replete with plenty of presidential backtracks: There's the elder George Bush's 1988 campaign pledge to "Read my lips, no new taxes," and Clinton's 1992 vow to bring about a middle-class tax cut.
But there's also the need for voters to pay careful attention to the precise wording of candidates' vows. Gore, in his convention speech, said: "campaign-finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to Congress." He didn't promise to actually get it passed.
Bush said in his speech, "At the earliest possible date, my administration will deploy missile defenses to guard against attack and blackmail." He didn't say "the earliest possible technological date," which would imply he'd act solely on the basis of scientific feasibility, regardless of the foreign-policy problems the defense system would stir among America's friends and foes.
One thing about the future seems clear: Because both Gore and Bush have tackled several of the same key issues - such as introducing prescription-drug benefits and adding a private-investment component to Social Security - some version of these plans is likely to become law.
While it's impossible to predict now how many proposals the winner will push through, the past serves as a guide.
One study, by American University political scientist Jeff Fishel, found that presidents fulfilled, or made major efforts to fulfill, most campaign pledges. It put John Kennedy's promises-kept-or-nearly-kept rate at 67 percent, Lyndon Johnson's at 63 percent, Richard Nixon's at 60, Jimmy Carter's at 65, and Ronald Reagan's at 53 percent.
A separate 1996 tally by Knight-Ridder newspapers credited Mr. Clinton with keeping 66 percent of the 106 pledges he made in 1992 - and "trying hard to keep" 81 percent.
Details of a vow may change after the election, "but the thrusts that [the candidates] indicate in the campaign are the thrusts they pursue when elected," says Mr. Edwards. "As a fairly conservative Republican, Ronald Reagan basically did what people expected him to do. Bill Clinton has, too."
Campaign pledges serve a purpose during the election season - from energizing the party's base to helping a candidate distinguish himself from his opponent, says Terry Sullivan, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Moreover, he says, they trigger "the underlying, deep-seated tendencies of a voter to pick one party or the other."
Once elected, a president's ability to deliver can be boosted in several ways.
*Working with a Congress led by his own party and avoiding US Supreme Court snarls.
*Paring the agenda to a few items and ramming them through Congress. After Johnson's 1965 inauguration, Republicans were astonished at the "Johnson Juggernaut" that passed Medicare, a voting-rights bill, and education-funding reform. Carter, though, got bogged down by an unwieldy agenda.
*Keeping costs realistic. Some estimates show Gore's or Bush's proposals would consume the 10-year, $2.2 trillion projected surplus. So trimming is likely.
In the end, "promises are best viewed in the context of a vision rather than a check-off list," says Marshall Wittmann, a fellow at the Hudson Institute here. "The only way you decide whether they kept enough promises is whether they're re-elected."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society