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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Promises Made? Promises Kept?

September 29, 2017

When Republican Gov. John Engler ran for a second term in 1994, he campaigned successfully under the slogan “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”

Whether you agreed or disagreed with the policy substance of those promises, Engler did fulfill many of his original 1990 pledges, including a property tax cut.

“That was the biggie,” recalls John Truscott, who was Engler’s press secretary at the time and is now president of the Lansing public relations firm Truscott Rossman.

High property taxes had been a major concern for decades, but the news was full of stories about how people were forced out of their homes by rapidly rising tax assessments. Even so, it took Engler three tries to get the Legislature to go along.

“We kind of knew it was our last-ditch effort so it could take effect before people voted,” Truscott says.

The governor’s “Promises Made, Promises Kept” campaign theme developed over time. “I don’t remember any epiphany,” Truscott says. “We were blessed to have some creative smart people.”

After that promise was kept, 61 percent of Michigan voters decided Engler had earned another four years in the governorship.

It’s far too soon to know whether President Donald Trump could run honestly for reelection under Engler’s slogan in 2020. Based on his legislative record with Congress so far, that appears unlikely. Of course, with Trump such a mantra is also questionable because of the many conflicting and back-and-forth-I’ve-changed-my-mind-I-didn’t-really-mean-what-I-said-blame-the-fake-news-media promises he made during the 2016 campaign and his first months in office.

“Promises Made, Promises Kept” as a campaign banner raises an interesting question about how often political parties fulfill their campaign pledges. An international team of political scientists from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Spain and Portugal studied how political parties fulfilled more than 20,000 campaign promises they made in 57 campaigns in 12 countries, including the United States.

Their study published in the latest issue of the “American Journal of Political Science” recognizes the public’s dominant skeptical opinion about “politicians as promise-keepers” but says, “Our findings challenge the common view of parties as promise-breakers. The evidence shows that parties act according to this principle to a considerable effect.”

Certainly we may be surprised by that finding because we can all think of multiple campaign promises made but not kept.

Why does it matter? As the authors write, “The fulfilment of election pledges is highly relevant to the theory and practice of representative democracy. A strong program-to-policy linkage is central to the mandate of democracy and the responsible party model.”

The study covered periods when a president’s party controlled both the White House and Congress — the current status in Washington — and the more common situation when a president’s party doesn’t hold a majority in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

Promises may be tough to keep. The study notes that under Ronald Reagan, the GOP “at least partially fulfilled pledges to cut certain taxes, enact deregulation and tighten eligibility for food stamps.” At the same time, however, Republicans failed to carry out promises to cut other taxes, enact a youth minimum wage and provide tax credits for private school tuition.

And some campaign promises are doomed from the get-go, and the study acknowledges that there’s no realistic expectation that some will be kept. As an example, it says, “Republican Party platforms regularly pledge to enact a constitutional amendment banning abortion, while this is unlikely to be fulfilled without winning both the presidency and unrealistically large majorities in both houses.”

Much of the study deals with democracies with different political systems, especially those structured to allow power-sharing. Among them are the United Kingdom — where Tory Prime Minister Theresa May went hat in hand to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to form a parliamentary majority and Germany — where Chancellor Angela Merkel is now doing the same thing after her right-center Christian Democratic Union Party failed to secure a parliamentary majority. Many of the countries studied have more than two viable parties.

Overall, governing parties fulfilled 60 percent of their pledges at least in part, with the highest rate in the United Kingdom (86 percent). U.S. campaign pledges are “significantly less likely to be fulfilled” than pledges in other systems, the researchers found, although non-presidential parties fulfilled at least in part a relatively high percentage of their promises because they held congressional majorities.

A number of factors help explain why promises made are or are not kept. They include a country’s financial wellbeing so the government has the money to carry out pledges.

That was fortuitously the case for Engler in 1994. As Truscott puts it, “We kept delivering on tax cuts at a time when the budget was growing and you had flexibility to do things.”

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

September 28, 2017 · Filed under Freedman

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