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Weekend Reading: Mark Schmitt: The Dangerous Politics of Hard Promises

Newt Gingrich started the practice of large-scale lying to the base as a thing: give to us and vote for us and once we have majorities we will save America and your life will be great! The long-term consequence is that the base regards the Republican political establishment and its infrastructure as con men and grifters out for a buck. That is, largely, accurate. What the base doesn't (yet) realize is that the "insurgents"--from Herman Cain and Ben Carson to Donald Trump and Rand Paul--are con men and grifters as well:

Mark Schmitt: The Dangerous Politics of Hard Promises: "Broken promises: That's a theme at the center of the campaign rhetoric of the two leading Republican candidates for president...

...Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and a plausible explanation for the failure of the establishment candidates. At the center of Cruz's stump speech is a series of absolute promises, culminating in a pledge to 'utterly demolish ISIS'--and he has four different Super PACs that bear the name 'Keep the Promise' (the original, and I, II, and III, named like financing rounds in a hedge fund). Congressional Republicans promised in 2014 that they would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act; defund Planned Parenthood; abolish the IRS; and humiliate, if not convict, Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi tragedy — all pledges they were unable to come even close to meeting. The conservative blogger Erick Erickson put it most succinctly: 'The Republican Party created Donald Trump, because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.' In Trump's account, the Republicans failed out of incompetence, and he'll do better. Cruz's story is that they failed because they lacked his ideological spine.

As Bloomberg columnist Francis Wilkinson put it:

Maybe what Republican voters want are promises even more extravagantly bankrupt than what they're accustomed to.

Promises have a role in politics — politicians owe it to voters to say what they intend to do — but politics built on big promises of specific results make an awkward fit in a democracy where power is diffused widely. Conservatives knew that they couldn't repeal the ACA without a veto-proof majority in the Senate, and they knew that Planned Parenthood remains a respected health provider, with full support up to the White House and even across the aisle.

Despite repeated reminders that unilateral action is near-impossible, the dominant tone of Republican political rhetoric for years has evolved toward ever more specific and firm promises. Beginning with Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in 1994 (a relatively modest document, in retrospect, made up largely of changes to congressional procedure and ideas like welfare reform that were already on track), the party continually raised the ante well beyond what any party could deliver, even with control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. The perpetual promise to balance the budget while also cutting taxes is not only politically, but mathematically, unachievable.

Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama make their own promises, but usually manageable ones, such as committing to veto legislation that would cut Social Security. More often, Clinton, like Barack Obama, talks about how things 'should' be — language that can seem cold and technocratic. Liberals also speak about politics as a negotiation: By pushing for a $15 minimum wage, you might have a better chance at a $12 minimum wage. Their language generally assumes the possibility of a well-functioning democratic system, in which ideas are heard and debated, compete with other ideas, and the ultimate result is a messy but legitimate compromise.

The difference between the parties on promises might be related to the distinction that political scientist Matt Grossmann has identified: that the Republican Party is an ideological movement, while the Democrats are a network of social and issue groups. An ideological movement asks for ever more emphatic declarations of ideological loyalty, while a network of interests can be satisfied, if not always mobilized, by a series of modest promises to pursue incremental progress on an issue, or sometimes merely to show recognition of the group and its causes.

Modern conservatism has thrived by seeding distrust of government, including the legislative process itself. But that creates a paradox: If voters doubt government can do anything right (as most voters and almost 90 percent of Republicans do), and that the process can't produce legitimate results, why should they trust one party to do better than another? In an atmosphere of pervasive distrust, one needs contracts and firm promises. And it becomes a vicious circle: To overcome distrust they make die-hard promises, unmet promises seed deeper distrust, and the promises become 'even more extravagantly bankrupt.'

Most conservative political promises are sealed with ideology. Cruz, like Gingrich, tells base voters that they can count on him to do what he says because, as a 'consistent conservative,' he is working from a tight ideological playbook made up of pledges such as Grover Norquist's promise never to raise taxes. A profound ideological commitment allows little room for compromise.

With the Republican base exhausted by these unmet ideological promises, Trump offered something different. His are not the promises of a politician, which are by definition untrustworthy, or of an ideological warrior, but a businessman's promises. They are sealed, in his rhetoric, by personal vow, and by contract. (Never mind the many contracts he's broken or litigated, including most recently his fingers-crossed pledge to support the Republican nominee.) Promising to name the five or 10 judges who would be his first nominees to the Supreme Court, Trump added that he would 'guarantee it personally, like we do in business.'

When promises aren't met, voters and activists will either see a betrayal or the intervention of some outside force, such as lobbyists and big money (the more common reaction among liberals). It's harder to accept that the policy outcome you preferred didn't happen simply because there weren't the votes for it in Congress, or not enough votes to overcome a filibuster, or that millions of your fellow citizens had a different preference. Political scientists who have studied campaign promises have found that both presidents and members of Congress do make a good faith effort to keep their promises, and when they fail to, it's usually because they don't have the political support — something that the 2014 class of Republicans should have known before they made their big promises.

Learning to lose — to accept that sometimes your viewpoint isn't shared by a majority — is an essential skill for a citizen in a democracy, or a president. One keeps trying to persuade others, or to find an acceptable middle ground. But when politicians make firm promises, and everything that falls short of the promise is seen as a betrayal, it's hard for people to engage in politics other than in ever-bigger waves of anger and disappointment.

That's all the more true when citizens live in insular communities, surrounded by people and media that reflect the same views and assumptions. If everyone you know and everyone you see on Fox News believes the Affordable Care Act is a radical socialist takeover of your health care, it's hard to imagine how a fair process would not have repealed it by now. And it's made worse by the undeniable evidence that political outcomes, and whose voice is heard, is distorted by money and influence.

To escape the cycle of promises, contracts, and disappointment, a central task for politicians who have more than their own electoral ambition in mind is to rebuild the structures that enable citizens to participate in democracy with an awareness of the preferences of many millions of other people, and a skepticism about politicians who make promises beyond what they can achieve.

That work might involve experimentation with process of deliberative democracy, such as participatory budgeting or structured town hall conversations. It may involve efforts to restore faith in government: improve the performance of government, reduce the influence of money, and help citizens see government at its best. But it starts with politicians in both parties talking more honestly about what they can do.

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