Better promises, Version 2.0

Making campaign promises is risky business. That was the thesis of my last column. I could just leave the topic there, but that would be unrealistic. This is an election year and promises are going to be made. Some of my own valued clients want and need to make vows to voters. So how can we reduce the risk?

Understatement is a useful starting point. A series of little promises is likely to be more credible than a pompous “Contract with America.” Voters may believe you’ll fill the potholes along Main Street; they won’t believe that you can duplicate Giza’s Great Pyramid at no cost to taxpayers. Some of the greatest successes in American politics have come from fixing the little bothersome things that drive everyone crazy. Gain credibility by under-promising.

When understatement won’t do, it’s advisable to dress up your plans in rhetorical flourishes. A straightforward campaign promise isn’t as effective as a binding “contract” or, even better, a “covenant” with voters. This was the genius of the Contract with America. The problem today is that that 1994 agreement was violated. So all new contracts are suspect. But other than being a little shop-worn by Bill Clinton’s manipulations, the term “covenant” is still ripe for those big promises that need more than a simple pledge or vow.

Promises with no obvious cost to taxpayers can also be effective. I have had statewide candidates pledge, for example, to visit each county in the state before the next election. Going further, promises can be made that save taxpayers money. Members of Congress can swear to return their frank or salary increase to the Treasury, or have open-door office policies. These sorts of guarantees can be real crowd-pleasers, and they avoid the cynicism that follows a costly pledge.

Alarm bells should go off in a candidate’s head any time a campaign pledge being pondered carries a price tag. But costly proposals aren’t the only ones to avoid. Candidates are also advised to steer clear of promises that involve good will between warring parties. Some candidates cannot help themselves when it comes to promising “bipartisan cooperation.”

These idealists generally don’t stop at unifying irreconcilable Republicans and Democrats. They go on to pledge a peace in Iraq that involves happy Sunni and Shiite factions living as brothers. These sunny and optimistic sentiments often receive momentary applause, luring the candidate into the trap, but in less than the 90 minutes it takes to wrap up a focus group, most voters realize they’ve been duped.

In general, promises of “good government” are also an avoidable mistake. Voters generally don’t believe political promises regarding accountability, transparency and responsiveness.

But there is one solution to this dilemma that candidates might adopt from the initiative and referendum world: creation of an oversight board. Ballot measure advocates often build into their proposal the formation of a committee composed of trustworthy citizens charged with ensuring that a bond or mill levy plan is executed as promised. Perhaps candidates need to appoint a panel of ordinary Joes and Janes whose responsibility is to monitor whether they keep their promises or not. Who know? It might be a fresh new step toward credibility.

Good promise-making is often subject to context. If a candidate upsets an incumbent to secure election, he or she might want to make reelection promises that relate to ethics. Or if a challenger candidate wants to defeat a promiscuous-spending incumbent, he might consider a no-earmark pledge. The importance of local context should be painfully evident, but many candidates and campaigns don’t get it. They take their cues from the larger national issue arena. I am already seeing this in relation to earmarks. Some candidates are promising to shun earmarks in races where the issue is non-existent.

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