Why Politicians Lie About Everything
The Megan McArdle–Ezra Klein–Megan 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.