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The Difference Between Promising and Governing

Should voters believe what politicians say to get elected?

Over the last few election cycles, "fact checking" has become ubiquitous. News organizations, advocacy groups and partisans devote significant resources to comparing what is said in election campaigns to what happens after the winners take office. Not surprisingly, the reality of governing doesn't always match the promises that candidates make.

What most of the fact-checking sites and organizations have in common is that they are about correcting the record with respect to things that have already happened. There is another kind of reality check, however, that may be even more important but is much harder to do. That is when a candidate for office promises to do things, if elected, that would not pass any kind of reality check. Unlike untruths that are told about past events, we do not know that these are false, but there should be substantial reasons to very skeptical that these promises can ever come true.

I am reminded of this by some recent work by the Tax Policy Center (TPC), a Washington think tank that has analyzed the tax and budget promises of various presidential candidates. Earlier this month, TPC released a full analysis of the tax and spending plans of Sen. Bernie Sanders. The Democratic presidential candidate has not been at all hesitant to point out that he intends to raise taxes to finance his proposals for expanded programs to benefit the working and middle classes. These spending proposals include eliminating college tuition, "Medicare for all" (a single-payer health program) and expanded Social Security benefits. While TPC found that the tax changes Sanders advocates would raise $15.3 trillion over the first 10 years, it calculated that even this substantial revenue bump would fall far short of paying for these expanded benefit programs. Overall, TPC says the Sanders plan would roughly double the national debt over the same 10 years, adding $18 trillion to our national credit card.

Sanders is not alone. TPC also analyzed Donald Trump's tax proposals and found that his plan to cut taxes by lowering marginal rates and making other changes would add $9.5 trillion to the debt over the first 10 years and an additional $15 trillion over the subsequent decade. The statements that Trump has made about how his tax cuts would be paid for involve items like unrealistic claims about "waste, fraud and abuse" in the Social Security system.

These two insurgents, in part, seem to be connecting with voters because they are not traditional "establishment" candidates. Rather, they offer proposals that would represent a radical departure from current policies that would be unlikely to become law, for reasons either political (the difficulty of getting them through Congress) or economic (increases in the debt of this magnitude, in the view of many on both sides of the partisan aisle, could move past irresponsible to downright dangerous).

While these represent extreme examples, unrealistic promises by politicians are nothing new, nor are they confined to national policy. An analysis of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's promises from his 2010 and 2014 campaigns found that the Republican governor had kept less than half of them. Kentucky's Republican governor, Matt Bevin, broke what one observer referred to as his "biggest campaign promise" when his most recent budget left untouched the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act put in place by his Democratic predecessor. And the fact-checking site PolitiFact, tracking how campaign promises by Virginia's Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, have played out, found that some had been fulfilled, some had stalled and some had gone nowhere.

Presumably some voters cast their ballots for Walker or Bevin or McAuliffe because of these promises, without complete information on the odds of them being kept. By the same token, if Trump or Sanders supporters actually believe that we will end up with a $10 trillion tax cut or a single-payer health system or free college tuition, they should not be surprised if they later discover that these pie-in-the-sky proposals were a mirage.

As the 2016 campaign season heats up, here's hoping that the media and voters try to hold candidates accountable for what they propose, rather than casting votes for politicians who make unrealistic and dangerous -- but appealing -- promises.

Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy
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