No sooner had Mr. Clinton been elected than his skin began turning colors before our very video-enhanced eyes. The promised tax cut for middle-class America was put on hold, or was it? No decision had been made by the president-elect, firmly intoned chief Clinton economic adviser Robert Reich—which underscored that the mere existence of a promise was not seen as an important constraint on policy behavior. Now boxed in by the real world, the thunderous campaign pledge to extend low-cost health insurance to every American shriveled to a squeaky post-election prediction that a health-reform bill would be sent to Congress within 100 days—sorry, no guess on when (if ever) anything would become law.
And the gung-ho "get America moving again" pledge, useful in bashing the incumbent Republican as a "do-nothing President," was pushed to the back burner. Now, Hooverian conservatism: We must be very careful in enacting a stimulatory economic package, fearful that we might upset capital markets (by spending too much and having to borrow even more). This caveat tacitly admitted that the jerry-rigged economic-recovery plan Mr. Clinton had promised was logically inconsistent with the closing of the federal deficit, which Mr. Clinton had also promised. Alas. The simple fact is that Mr. Clinton's promises cannot all be kept; it isn't arithmetically possible. Damn that decimal-number system!
I know Mr. Clinton didn't want to make all those bogus promises but was forced into it by Republican Dirty Tricksters. He didn't want to be Willie Hortoned! Michael Kinsley has smartly (and gleefully) justified the disingenous Democratic campaign for the White House: So what if we lied about the economy. And the budget. And maybe the deficit. We lied slightly less than the GOP, and, anyway, you have to fudge the truth to get elected, for chrissake. Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes taught us that!
Fair enough. The Republican devils made you do it. But breaking promises is a very tricky business. (Ask Mr. Bush.) Thus far Mr. Clinton has been clumsy.
On his pledge to slash congressional staff expenses by 25 percent, for instance, he reneged after just one meeting with Democratic leaders in Washington, upon hearing Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's explanation that such a cut had already been instituted. (Right. And—if you just remember to carry the 1—the federal budget is balanced.) You're really going to have to break your promises a little better than that, Mr. Clinton. A few helpful ploys:
The "I Never Said That" Defense. Needs secondary positions in the age of instantaneous on-line data-base searches. A heated "I Never Meant That" or "That's Taken Way Out of Context" are necessary fallbacks, because after a long campaign, chances are you did say that. Good points: Snappy retort, puts press pipsqueaks quickly in their place. Bad points: It's basically lying.
The "I Never Promised That" Defense. A pledge is different from a promise. Very technical, can get otherwise intelligent people debating minutiae for days, by which time you've escaped to a new photo op. Good points: Diverts attention from public-policy issues to rhetorical issues. Bad points: It's basically lying, sort of.
The "Things Have Changed" Defense. OK, so I forgot to qualify my promises; everyone knows that a public-policy promise can only be premised on the events existing at one point in time and that as time changes, things change…and so ought one's promise! Good points: Things always change. Bad points: It's quasi-factual construction.
The "If I Knew Then What I Know Now" Defense. Good points: Shows you're growing in the job. Can't be used against you next time, because by then you'll be the incumbent. Bad points: Contains a germ of truth.
The "I Don't Know What I Was Thinking" Defense. Good points: Makes you seem human, gains public sympathy. Bad points: An outrageous lie. You know exactly what you were thinking. ("Dear God, don't let me lose now!")
The "At Least I Didn't Say 'Read My Lips'" Defense. Good points: Redirects attention to someone who obviously did lie, and it's not you. Bad points: It reminds everyone of the last guy they booted out, and why.
The "If You Didn't Want Slick, You Shouldn't Have Voted for Willie" Defense. Take the middle-class tax cut. During the campaign, you played the middle class like a matador teasing a bull. You flashed "Tax Cut!" in New Hampshire and swept the primaries (even as Sen. Tsongas called you a Pander Bear). In June, with the nomination tucked away, ¡olé! You dropped the tax cut like an old girlfriend gone to Penthouse.
In the heat of the general-election campaign, you re-upped on the tax-cut pledge. Again the electorate lunged for the cape—¡Hasta luego, el tax cut! You have every right to say: "Sure I waffled. Even Bush knew I'd be 'pulling a Clinton.' What you think you see is what you never get. Gotcha!" Good points: It's honest. Bad points: It's the truth.
Just observe these little rules for sliding out of your major promises, and you'll do fine. In fact, I think I speak for every voter in America when I say: Mr. Clinton, just level with us like this, treat us with all the respect you afforded us on the campaign trail, and we promise to vote for you—no one else—in 1996. And that's a pledge. Honest.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: Oops!".