A picture at the top of the Drudge Report earlier this week showed President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid standing in front of huge banners declaring: “Honest Leadership: Open Government.”
Honest, of course, with the exception of the various payoffs, tradeoffs, and bribes for votes on health care; and open except for the fact that it’s all being done in secret, behind closed doors.
At least you have to give them points for chutzpah, if not for subtlety. After campaigning on the explicit promise that the health care negotiations would be a model of transparency, with all of the talks broadcast on CSPAN, no less, Democrats now apparently calculate that (a) the public suffers from amnesia, or (b) campaign promises don’t really matter.
They are wrong on both counts: just ask George H.W. Bush or Jim Doyle.
Bush famously campaigned on a read-my-lips no-new –tax platform, only to famously renege, making himself a one term president.
Governor Doyle was equally adamant: “Going forward, my mind will be open to every solution except one. We should not, we must not, and I will not raise taxes."
At the time, Doyle actually sounded like he meant it. "Wisconsin's problem is not that we tax too little, it's that we spend too much,” he explained. "By costing us jobs, raising taxes would trigger an economic spiral that would cost us revenue too. In the long run -- and perhaps in the short term, too--raising taxes will make the deficit worse, not better."
Then after winning re-election, Doyle promptly raised taxes by more than $3 billion (while still leaving a multi-billion dollars deficit) even as his poll numbers converted him to a supporter of self-imposed term limits.
Other factors obviously contributed to the Bush/Doyle meltdowns; but the loss of trust may have been the fatal wound. Despite the political conventional wisdom, voters do care if politicians lie to them. Especially in times of the economic hardship and stress, the public’s antennae are highly sensitive to signs that politicians have sold them out. (It’s not a coincidence that after years of apathy Milwaukee County’s electorate revolted over the pension scandals in early 2002, shortly after 9/11.)
Which is, of course, Obama’s problem now. Videos of his promise to broadcast the health talks on CSPAN have been played over and over on the internet and on mainstream media news broadcasts. His promise was clear, unambiguous, and keeping it was well within his power. If the public had (as is likely) forgotten the original pledge, they have been reminded again and again that the president apparently lied in order to get elected and has no qualms about breaking his word on a high profile issue.
This is especially awkward because Obama is now asking the public to trust politicians with matters of life and death.
Cynically, Obama’s people seem to rely on the public’s own cynicism about politics. But they ran a campaign that presented Obama as the antithesis of cynicism. A year ago, Barack Obama had the most precious resource a leader can hope to have: credibility. A year later, he’s squandered it.
Peter Wehner thinks this may be a tipping point:
Sometimes in the life of a politician, a particular moment, word, or act defines them — and badly damages them. This much-viewed montage of comments by Barack Obama, repeatedly promising that he would allow C-SPAN to broadcast health-care negotiations, may well qualify. The reason is that it requires no commentary or interpretation by others; it is Barack Obama in his own words — words we now know to be false, cynical, and (quite literally) unbelievable. My hunch is that this episode will do considerable harm to Obama’s standing with the public, in part because it annihilates what had been at the core of the Obama campaign and the Obama appeal: the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics; that transparency would be a watchword of his presidency; that he would “turn the page” on the practice of cynical politics. It is not simply that the negotiations will not appear on C-SPAN; it is that the process itself has been a model of payoffs and backroom deals, of dishonest arguments and false claims, of secrecy and cynicism.
This is not, of course, what the Democrats are telling one another in Washington (or Madison for that matter). Process, they insist to one another, doesn’t matter if we deliver the results. But credibility is not just process; for many voters honesty is substance, especially when politicians are asking them to trust them with the nation’s economy, security, and health care.
In the age of internet and Youtube, politicians would do well not to make promises they do not intend to keep. Just ask Jim Doyle.
-January 12, 2010