Why Politicians Lie About Everything

The Megan McArdleEzra KleinMegan McArdle (again)-Matt Yglesias debate as to the honesty of the Bush administration’s sale of the first term tax cut is interesting on a number of levels and I commend it to you.

While Matt and Ezra are right to be exasperated by the notion that tax cuts come with no trade-offs and are therefore wonderful no matter the economic circumstances, Megan is right on the larger point:

The Bush administration was not cutting taxes out of crackpot supply-sidism; it was cutting taxes because it wanted to cut taxes, and making extravagantly exaggerated claims about the benefits of its policies. This is not exactly surprising or novel behavior for a presidential administration. . . .

Indeed. With incredibly rare exceptions, presidents are not policy wonks. They propose policies that have emerged through the staffing process for a variety of reasons: getting re-elected, satisfying the base, ideological predisposition, and the good of the country (a list one hopes isn’t mutually exclusive) being the most obvious. They then sell them on the basis of talking points designed to be most effective, glossing over inconvenient facts.

Matt’s notion that only Republicans do this is rather strained.

If Hillary Clinton got up at the next presidential debate and said “I believe a policy of ‘Medicare for all’ could save enough money to pay for a universal preschool program and more generous Social Security benefits,” Barack Obama would say she was out of her mind, major liberal commentators would agree, and if she started angrily defending the claim against all comers it would be big trouble for her campaign. By contrast, were Mitt Romney to attack John McCain’s embrace of supply-side dogma, that would swiftly destroy Romney‘s campaign as all the major institutions of the right moved to expel him from the movement.

Democratic candidates cling to party dogma all the time, pretending that raising the minimum wage, empowering labor unions, nationalizing health care, and sticking it to the rich have no real negative consequences. Presumably, they do this because they think those policies are, in the main, very beneficial and a lot of caveats weakens the message in an age of sound byte politics.

The presidential candidates of both parties have limited knowledge and interests. They’re compelled to answer questions about taxes, health care, defense, the environment, and what have you. Few of them are interested in, let alone knowledgeable about, more than a handful of those. They give pre-rehearsed answers to all of them based on talking points written by others to appeal to the electorate, be it the primary base or the larger general election audience. And, more cases than not, they govern differently when they actually get elected and have to deal with the much more complicated realities while getting better advice.

At the end of the day, though, they remain politicians, not philosophers.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Barry says:

    “Indeed. With incredibly rare exceptions, presidents are not policy wonks.”

    Ezra begs to disagree.

    Also, I think that you’re shifting the goalposts – the charge is grotesque lies about economics as a mainstream feature of the GOP.

  2. >The Bush administration was not cutting taxes
    >out of crackpot supply-sidism

    Especially since most of the tax cuts were in the form of credits, not deductions or reductions in marginal tax rates, and were thus demand-side based.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    To use a sports analogy, not all plays in football result in a touchdown but they hopefully move the ball in the right direction. Not all policy decisions yield a Utopian society but they may also move things in the right direction. An overall game plan will see some successes that are big and some little but the message of the progress being made needs to get out. Playing up success can be construed as lying but it really isn’t.

    Politics is also like a courtroom. You have a responsibility to present your side of the case and then let the opposition present theirs. It’s a form of malpractice to do the other’s work.

  4. legion says:

    To continue your analogy, Bush’s tax plan amounts to telling the defense to fall down & let the other team score, just so our offense can get the ball back quicker to try and put more points on the board. Calling that a successful game plan _is_ lying.

  5. Barry says:

    There’s some additional material at
    Mark Thoma’s website.