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Candidate credibility: Promises vs. 'if I'm able'
The absurdity of campaign promises, and the presidential campaign coverage gap

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RICHARD AMRHINE
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Date published: 8/17/2008

By Richard Amrhine

CANDIDATES love to accuse one another of breaking past campaign promises. They do that because it raises questions of credibility and overall honesty. The accusing candidate is convinced that pointing out such contradictory behavior gives voters doubts about his opponent while providing traction to his own campaign.

Smart voters know, however, that campaign "promises" are no such thing. They represent a wish list and should be characterized as goals. Because they want to sound authoritative, candidates will sound as though they are promising this or that. Voters need to understand that circumstances change, and that such pledges hinge on a legislature going along with an idea and funding it if necessary.

Senate candidate and former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore has charged that his successor and opponent, former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, promised during the '01 gubernatorial campaign that he wouldn't raise taxes but then saddled Virginia taxpayers with the largest increase in the state's history.

Gilmore, it should be noted, won in 1997 by promising "No Car Tax," but was able to get rid of only 75 percent of it because he underestimated the cost. It's actually a good thing that his campaign promise was unmet, considering the budget chaos caused by only partial implementation.

Because of Gilmore's fiscal foolishness, Warner inherited a budget very much out of balance, a problem the depth of which Gilmore hid well. The only way Warner could provide a constitutionally mandated balanced budget without dismantling necessary state services was to raise taxes.

Good thing Warner hadn't painted himself into a corner by signing one of those absurd no-tax pledges that Republicans favor.

In nearly every case, I reject both campaign promises and the campaign rhetoric in which one candidate accuses another of breaking a campaign promise. A candidate wins supporters by expressing his or her hopes and aspirations with passion and clarity.

Voters should understand that anything that sounds like a promise comes automatically with the unspoken "if I am able to" attached. That is always understood, and it is business as usual on the campaign trail.

This of course applies to presidential candidates, as well. Their efforts to placate a diverse and far-flung electorate result in vague promises of cleaner air, improved access to health care, and better-paying jobs.


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