WASHINGTON TODAY: Voters Take Political Promises With Plenty of Salt
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Back in 1989, Virginia political consultant Ed DeBolt tossed an extra question into one of his polls.
How many voters, in a state that went overwhelmingly for George Bush the previous fall, actually believed the president’s then-fresh promise of ″Read My Lips - No New Taxes?″
″Seventy-two percent of the people didn’t think he was telling the truth even before he decided to raise taxes,″ recalls DeBolt, a Republican.
Bush, of course, went on to break his vow.
Virginia, according to both Democrats and Republicans, will end up in Bush’s column again this November.
This is normal.
It seems that many voters view the promises of political courtship much as they view them in romantic courtship, as signals of intentions. And they know that not everything uttered in passion, whether in a romance or in the heat of debate, becomes a binding contract.
And the politicians know they can’t guarantee results. Their promises are a code, a part of a complex and continually changing relationship with the public.
Of course, they tell people what they want to hear.
Both Bill Clinton and George Bush promise to improve schools, fight crime, promote industry and cut out the waste in government.
Clinton says he’ll push for universal health insurance. Bush says he’ll cut out the frivolous lawsuits that help drive up health costs.
Clinton is promising 8 million jobs. Bush is promising to shrink government and cut taxes.
But those words tell them more.
Stan Renshon, a professor and the coordinator of the political psychology program at the City University of New York Graduate Center, says voters look at the promises, but also beyond them, in their search for leadership.
″I’m one of those who believe that voters are quite sophisticated,″ said Renshon.
They backed Ross Perot because ″they want to have the hope that somebody can get things done,″ he said. They changed their minds about him once his weaknesses were exposed in stories about, among other things, how Perot investigated other people.
Accordingly, Bush and Clinton make promises to compensate for their own weaknesses and to capitalize on their opponent’s.
Bush, of course, must live down the dismal economic record of his first term, but Renshon says that’s possible - by promising to focus his second term on the domestic as he did on foreign affairs.
″He’s got to convince people of that,″ he said, and that might be enough. ″If he does that, will he in fact succeed? That’s a whole different question.″
For Clinton, ″one of the downsides for the American public is the memory of the government being involved in a very heavy way ... with results that were problematic,″ he said. ″Poverty didn’t cease to exist, Homelessness developed.″
Bush’s promises are, at least in part, aimed at drawing distinctions between him and Clinton that reinforce the predisposed public distrust Clinton inherits from other Democrats.
″The public, I think, generally thinks Republicans will do a slightly better job holding down government spending and taxes than the Democrats do,″ DeBolt said.
Not even the president’s own spokesman took Bush’s latest no-tax pledge as the final word, DeBolt points out. But it helps convince voters that Bush is less likely to dip into their pockets than Clinton would be.
Clinton’s promises, meanwhile, are designed in part to remind voters of Bush’s failures, especially the high unemployment rate. And when he promises to cut the size of the White House staff - something Bush now says he’ll do also - it’s designed in part to separate himself from those Democratic big- government hobgoblins of the past.
In the end, ″it becomes an issue of who you trust to try,″ Renshon said.
For at least a few voters, it promises to be a tough decision.
EDITOR’S NOTE - Steven Komarow is a AP congressional correspondent currently assigned to cover the presidential campaign.