Promises: Make and break them

Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, the legendary coach of fundamental football, always warned quarterbacks about the dangers of the forward pass: “When you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad.”

Someone needs to warn politicians that making campaign promises is even riskier than a Brett Favre pass. Yes, Favre was an all-time great quarterback, but his reckless passing set the NFL record for interceptions thrown. Politicians making promises, like Favre, need a better touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio.

The football analogy is an appropriate one in May and June. It’s not just the time period when most NFL teams are holding workouts to get ready for the fall season; it’s also the period when politicians are doing their own pre-season scheming, looking for promises to make after Labor Day, when campaigning begins in earnest. I recently had a GOP state legislative caucus operative tell me that his incumbents were stirring about, looking for platform planks that included some “positive promises” about what they would do if reelected. “They say that’s what the voters want,” he reported. But is it? Do voters look for campaign promises? Or do they laugh at them?

Let’s look at one often-made campaign promise (at least by Republicans) and what happens after the promise is made.

“Elect me and I promise to run government like a business.”

The peanut gallery immediately pipes up and asks, “What business are you speaking of — Enron or sub-prime mortgage lenders?” Laughter and guffaws cascade around the candidate.

But once he re-gathers his dignity and composure, he sloughs off the naysayers, makes some more poll-tested promises and proceeds to get elected.

But then reelection time comes around and his opponents start to investigate whether he’s kept his promises, including the one about running government like a business. Of course, government is hardly like a business, so his promise was impossible to fulfill from its inception, so he gets hammered by challengers for a broken promise. He might even be reduced to sheepishly pleading that he kept most of his promises, or his “core” promises, or even blaming his failures on others. But the damage is done.

That unpleasant scenario is actually one of the more benign portrayals of where promises might lead. Promises can elicit much worse than laughter. There is a strain of the electorate now that gets ugly when promises are made. These voters see politicians as glib manipulators who brazenly lie to us. It’s the supposed shameless quality of the politician’s deception that sets this voter off on a malevolent rant.

Instead of laughter, promises can prompt cynical diatribes that turn a vow for universal healthcare or peace in Iraq into an assault on common sense. These voters don’t need to wait until the next election to punish a promise-breaker. They stand ready to mug a promise-maker before he or she even gets started.

This is a knotty problem. I was confronted with it recently while conducting focus groups on a ballot measure being advanced by a Western-state governor. The initiative language promises to spend a precise percentage of new tax revenues on a specific purpose. To protect the innocent, we’ll say 40 percent must be spent on water projects. Voters read this and many, perhaps a majority, of five focus groups said they doubted that that specified percentage of money would be spent on water projects. I protested, “But this will be written into your state constitution, so it must be done.” They just folded their arms and said, in so many words, that there’s always a way to get around such provisions.

If people won’t believe promises written in black and white in their own constitution, what will they believe that comes out of a politician’s mouth?

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.