CHARLOTTE—In the 48 hours before the Democratic National Convention was gaveled into session, chattering-class talk focused on the governing party's bungling of the classic question for presidential incumbents: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a leading surrogate for President Barack Obama, answered the question on Face the Nation Sunday with a blunt and certainly plausible "no." Over on Fox News, campaign strategist David Axelrod countered, "We're in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy." On Monday, Los Angeles Mayor and DNC Chair Antonio Villaraigosa said on CBS News that "Of course, if you're recently unemployed, you're not better off. But the fact of the matter is, as a nation, we are better off." At a rally, Vice President Joe Biden said "You want to know whether we're better off?…I've got a little bumper sticker for you: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." Campaign spokesman Stephanie Cutter settled on the over-confident "absolutely" on Monday, and before you know it Martin O'Malley was walking it back with a "We are clearly better off as a country because we're creating jobs rather than losing them. We have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession. That's why we need to continue to move forward."
Democratic sympathizers pointed out that the question is less than 100 percent fair, since George W. Bush was in office four years ago, and the nation was three weeks away from a financial crisis that would send the economy into free-fall by the time Obama took the oath of office. But as delegates and the media re-convene four years after Obama's historical Democratic coronation in Denver, it is not only fair but necessary and instructive to look at how the newly Democratic White House and Congress lived up to its own vows from the 2008 DNC.
Some promises—like hunting down Osama bin Laden and enacting universal health insurance—were certainly kept. But here's a list of five that weren't.
1) Creating Five Million "Green Jobs"
In his acceptance speech, echoing scores of similar claims throughout the 2008 DNC, candidate Obama vowed that, "I'll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy—wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced."
The investment part of the pledge is well-spoken for—$80 billion in the stimulus alone. But as The New York Times concluded one year ago (and as Reason has long predicted), "Federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed." Central planning of the alternative energy business was a disaster under Jimmy Carter, and it has been a wipeout under Barack Obama.
2) Balancing the Budget
In his 2008 speech, Obama acknowledged that many of his policies (including goosing the alt-energy industry) would cost money, "which is why I've laid out how I'll pay for every dime—by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don't help America grow. But I will also go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less."
While you can already hear the Democratic retort that The Financial Crisis Changed Everything, it's important to note that Obama was still campaigning on a "net spending cut" after the financial crisis hit. The 2008 DNC was filled with ringing denunciations of how George W. Bush increased the national debt and deficit, and that the Democratic Party would restore fiscal rectitude. The party platform promised that, "In this time of economic transformation and crisis, we must be stewards of this economy more than ever before. We will maintain fiscal responsibility, so that we do not mortgage our children's future on a mountain of debt."
3) Refusing to Raise Taxes on the Middle Class
In his 2008 DNC speech, echoing a daily campaign theme, Obama said "I will cut taxes—cut taxes—for 95 percent of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class."
How's that promise working out? Let's go to Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney:
Surely you recall his famous campaign promise "If you make less than $250,000 a year, you will not see any of your taxes increase one single dime." Well, after creating a tobacco tax and a tanning tax, prohibiting deductions for over-the-counter medications, and imposing the individual-mandate tax—all of which apply to people earning well under $250,000—Obama had the chutzpah to tell Bill O'Reilly, "I haven't raised taxes once."
4) Reforming Immigration
The 2008 Democratic Party platform stated, "We are committed to pursuing tough, practical, and humane immigration reform in the first year of the next administration."
Not only did that first year pass without so much as a nod toward immigration reform, the Obama administration has been deporting illegal immigrants like crazy, leaving Hispanic Caucus Democrats in the awkward position of changing the subject to health care, and otherwise blaming Republicans.
5) Restoring America's Moral Standing in the World
From Obama's 2008 DNC speech: "I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan….I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future."
Going through that list, the war in Iraq is ongoing and the U.S. military still has a massive footprint there even with the withdrawal of combat troops. The fight in Afghanistan is nowhere near finished. Global climate change diplomacy is in full disarray, and there are many who describe what is happening in Syria nowadays as "genocide." Add to that Obama's aggressive drone strikes all over the globe, and the ongoing operation of the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and it's hard to build a case that our "moral standing" has been restored.
As in all of these promises, delivering is hard, and sometimes following through would make the world a worse, not better, place. But politicians should be judged not only by the wisdom of their actions, but by the yardsticks they themselves put into place, if for no reason than to temper our enthusiasm for whatever they promise today, and also to disabuse ourselves from the fantasy that the key to solving an intractable problem is selecting the right team.
Something to keep in mind as you scroll through the newly released 2012 Democratic Party platform.