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Candidate credibility: Promises vs. 'if I'm able'

August 17, 2008 12:15 am



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.

We'll be getting an overdose of such rhetoric at the upcoming national conventions. Please, spare me and be honest: Tell me what you hope to accomplish.


Those who keep up with the news have had to notice it, and it's not your imagination: Stories about Sen. Barack Obama are everywhere, while news about Sen. John McCain is less easy to find.

Some of our readers have noticed it, and one letter to the editor we ran questioned why that is and why mainstream coverage across the board is so "biased" toward Obama. After all, McCain's public service and political resume is much more extensive than Obama's, making McCain deserving of more thorough coverage.

Having selected wire service stories for newspapers myself during past campaigns, I can attest the emphasis we place on equal treatment: Stories should be about the same length, pictures about the same size. The candidate who leads the page one day gives up top billing to his opponent the next. Fairness is the goal.

But, in the end, it's up to the candidate to generate interest, both among voters and the media. Obama seems the much more visible candidate, and while any good editor will try to offer balanced coverage, he or she must balance that with the news judgment that the job requires.

With no basis other than my vague recollections of past presidential campaigns, I don't recall a similar situation where coverage seemed so lopsided. I wouldn't say the coverage is biased, though there's no mistaking the media's fawning over the younger and more charismatic candidate. But the quantity of coverage suggests to even casual observers that McCain risks becoming the forgotten candidate.

It's partly because, for example, while Obama is responding to the adoration of 200,000 in Berlin, McCain is reminding us to wash our vegetables before eating them. Which one would you think deserves better play? One solution is to run analysis pieces that compare campaigns.

But some of the blame has to go to McCain himself for waging a listless campaign. I'm sure the candidate and his staff think they're off-the-chart busy. But all that many Americans can see is a past-his-prime politician who is unable to separate himself from the Bush leprosy--I mean legacy.

The polls show Obama and McCain surprisingly--to me--close. That can be only because more Americans than I care to think reject Obama because of his name, color, and diverse background. These are people who, if his words were coming from a white face, might actually agree with what he says.

By November I would hope many such Americans will open their minds. Either that or they'll realize how badly the GOP deserves to be spanked.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.