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David Sirota
David Sirota
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Whither the Sacred Campaign Promise?


Though not (yet) having children of my own, I often consider what my future offspring won't know about and will find humorous. I fantasize that they will have no idea what gasoline-powered cars or private health insurance policies are. But I also worry they will guffaw in disbelief when I tell them politicians once knew that breaking campaign promises without explanation had consequences.

Historically, Americans generally held campaign promises sacred. We understood that republican democracy makes us rely on pledges of future action as the metric for choosing representatives; we knew that politicians reneging on pledges without adequate reason were desecrating that democracy; and we therefore often punished promise-breakers accordingly.

I'm not idealizing halcyon days that never were — just ask George H.W. Bush, who lost re-election in 1992 after trampling his "no new taxes" guarantee. Indeed, breaking campaign pledges was one of the surest ways for politicians to hurt themselves — until 2006.

That year's highest-profile campaign was Connecticut's U.S. Senate race between incumbent Joseph Lieberman and challenger Ned Lamont — a race signaling a tectonic shift.

Lieberman had broken two key promises: 1) He was violating an explicit term-limits pledge and 2) He vowed to "help end the war in Iraq" while working to continue it. And yet, he was re-elected without ever explaining his reversals.

I'd like to think that result was merely a symptom of momentary shellshock. Perhaps an electorate so numbed by Republicans' then-recent attacks on John Kerry's changing positions was temporarily unable to process discussions of "flip-flopping."

But, then, behavior by President Obama suggests a more systemic assault on the campaign promise is underway.

It started in December when he was asked why he was making Hillary Clinton his chief diplomat after criticizing her qualifications and promising Democratic primary voters that his views on international relations were different than hers.

He responded by telling the questioner "you're having fun" trying "to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign." The implicit assertion was that anyone expecting him to answer for campaign statements must just be "having fun" — and certainly can't be serious.

A few months later, in reversing a 5-year-old commitment to support ending the Cuban embargo, Obama offered no rationale for the U-turn other than saying he was "running for Senate" at a time that "seems just eons ago" — again, as if everyone should know that previous campaign promises mean nothing.

At least that was a response. After the New York Times recently reported that "the administration has no present plans to reopen negotiations on NAFTA" as "Obama vowed to do during his campaign," there was no explanation offered whatsoever. We were left to recall Obama previously telling Fortune magazine that his NAFTA promises were too "overheated and amplified" to be taken literally.

It's true that politicians have always broken promises, but rarely so proudly and with such impunity.

We once respected democracy by at least demanding explanations — however weak — for unfulfilled promises. Then we became a country whose scorched-earth campaigns against flip-flopping desensitized us to reversals. Now, we don't flinch when our president appears tickled that a few poor souls still expect politicians to fulfill promises and justify broken ones.

The worst part of this devolution is the centrality of Obama, the prophet of “hope” and “change” who once said that "cynicism is a sorry kind of wisdom." If that's true, then he has become America's wisest man — the guy who seems to know my kids will laugh when I tell them politicians and voters once believed in democracy and took campaign promises seriously.

David Sirota is the bestselling author of the books "Hostile Takeover" (2006) and "The Uprising" (2008). He is a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future. Find his blog at or e-mail him at



6 Comments | Post Comment
If Mr. Sirota truly fantasizes that his children will have "no idea what gasoline-powered cars or private health insurance policies are," then he is indeed living in a dream world -- a dream of the loony far left.
Both will be around for a good long time to come. If the American people have any common sense, that is.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Scot Penslar
Sat Jun 6, 2009 1:09 AM
"If the American people have any common sense...gasoline-powered cars or private health insurance policies will be around for a good long time."
Said with such assuredness. These comments are exactly what the powers who rule over and control our government want...citizens who fight each other so that we don't pay attention to their manipulations.
Hybrids are already here, and full electric cars are coming. Health care will begin to change no matter the politicians on both sides of the aisle (all with their cadillac health coverage at taxpayers' expense). We're on our way to National Healthcare. You know how to pay for it. Begin looking at the Military Industrial Comples that drains and continues to drain the American people. A system that continues to enrich those behind the scenes.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Janet Gaudiello
Sun Jun 7, 2009 9:10 AM
You are right-on, David! I just read some of the letters at where this was also published from Obama apologists. There is no other word than "betrayal" when you look at the evidence from Wall St.cozininess to his continuing the human rights abuses of the last administration, and more for Obama's actions (most of them so far) - I think we have a cult of personality at work here getting dust in the eyes of some progressives. It doesn't matter that he's better than Bush II. Anyone would have been.
Comment: #3
Posted by: racetoinfinity
Mon Jun 8, 2009 10:19 PM
Campaign promises mean something to me. Obama has broken so many of his promises that I do not feel inclined to support his bid for re-election. Of course, that won't be until 2012.

I get more and more frustrated with Democrats who act like Republicans. The main difference between the two major parties is in the rhetoric they use to appeal to different voters. Obama knew what to tell liberals and progressives to win the nomination for president, but it turns out that he could not have actually believed what he told us.

Republicans manage to find candidates that scare me more than Democratic Party candidates do. I may soon become disgusted enough with Democrats to vote for third party candidates or to limit my votes to ballot issues. If the election were held today, I would not support Obama.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me repeatedly, shame on me.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Serfdom USA
Tue Jun 16, 2009 1:47 PM
Too bad for America that we passed up the opportunity to elect McCain/Palin. Roo bad for you that you didn't come to that realization earlier. Maybe next time you'll be a better judge of character in time to support the Republicans. Too bad it will be too late!
Comment: #5
Posted by: Pansy Bedwedder
Tue Jul 14, 2009 7:43 PM
As a voter, this is a tough issue. I used to be amazed that candidates could make clear, concrete promises, break them, and get re-elected. Term limits is the issue that first got me thinking about it. How could a candidate promise to serve a set number of terms -- even publicly sign a self-written contract eliminating any wiggle room -- then exceed the limit with a shrug and a vapid explanation?
It was easy to not understand when Republicans did it because I'm a Democrat and didn't support them anyway. When the tables turned, it got a lot harder to not understand. If I support a candidate and he or she breaks a key campaign promise, what are my options. I can vote for the opposing candidate or not vote.
To choose either of those options, I'd have to consider either the broken promise, or the act of breaking the promise, worse than having the Democrat lose to the Republican (reverse that for Republicans). It's possible, but not likely. There are too many issues on which Republicans and Democrats have significantly different views. And even if the two candidates happened to have somewhat similar positions, there are strategic considerations, like who has the majority and what would would they, or could they, do with it.
In the end, I think that, until breaking campaign promises becomes a super issue, a litmus test, that trumps everything else -- education, health care and so on -- politicians will be able to break a promise or two with impunity.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Jack Pommer
Wed Jul 22, 2009 5:27 PM
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