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The questionable value of campaign slogans


Because they're committed to transparency in practice, if not in theory, Matt Yglesias and Ben Smith took the discussion to Twitter. "Transparency in legislative process is badly overrated," Yglesias said, linking to Igor Volsky's post on the subject. "Much truth," Smith replied, "pity nobody told Obama campaign." Fair point. "Well," Yglesias countered, "it's not overrated as a campaign slogan." Smith agreed with that.

But I'm not sure I do. Did Obama actually win any undecided voters by promising, specifically, that "we’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies?" How about his vow to avoid raising taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year? Are there any actual voters who worry about Democrats and taxes but were calmed by this line?

People in campaigns don't campaign to govern so much as to have the opportunity to govern. And that means they try pretty much everything -- including promises that will cause them a whole lot of trouble if they're fortunate enough to win the election. Sometimes, this doesn't much matter. Obama reversed himself on the individual mandate without much ill effect. But sometimes, it really ties their hands, as the promise to preserve Bush's tax rates on those making less than $250,000 seems to have done. When trying to decide if something is worth it as a campaign slogan, you also have to consider its cost.

If the specificity of these lines really seemed to decide elections, you'd understand the impulse. But there's little evidence of that. Barack Obama won because Republicans were very unpopular and the war in Iraq was pretty unpopular and the economy was falling apart. It's easier to say that in retrospect than it was to confidently predict it at the time, but then, most people predicted it at the time, too. And it's not as if moving from "I won't raise taxes on people making less than $250,000" to "I'm not running for this office because I want to raise taxes on people and get kicked out in four years" is likely to swing the election in one direction or the other, or as if the C-SPAN line won Obama so many votes in Ohio.

Photo credit: Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press Photo.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 5, 2010; 5:32 PM ET
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You have taken a very insignificant portion of people's discontent with the Obama administration, and made it into an insignificant article.

I feel like I should have read this piece on Huffington Post or some other scanty news source.



Posted by: sdaclarke | January 5, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

It's not fair to raise taxes on the middle class when real wages are below what they were ten years ago. Yet here we are with an excise tax on health benefits >80% of which falls on middle class families by 2019. The fact that Obama said he wouldn't do this is just salt in an open wound. If he had't promised I'd still be mad.

Posted by: bmull | January 5, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

actually ezra, i am one of those people perpetually cynical about politics. it just wasn't part of my life. Until i heard this promise of transparency. And i started paying attention and i fell in love with him. But yes, although i understand the downsides to this (lawmakers more interested in grandstanding, ect...), this was the starting point for me. Now, obama is coming pretty close to satisfying me in terms of transparency for the executive branch. I just doubt it would work as well on the legislative branch, or that Obama could enact those changes himself without backing from dems.

Posted by: lupercal | January 5, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

Are comments working again? Sadly I tried to post my best comment ever and it went poof 8(

Anyway, gist of it is I think it is a mistake to believe these things dont matter to the people who voted for Obama but would otherwise have voted for a Republican in a different year.

Posted by: luko | January 6, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

It's not so much the specific promise of negotiating on C-Span that won me over. Rather, that promise was emblematic of his theme of "Change We Can Believe In." But when you START the health care legislative process by negotiating a sweetheart deal with the drug industry I, for one, can no longer believe. If the alternatives weren't so wretched, I would be looking around for someone else. Just don't ask me to be enthused.

Posted by: jeffgmartin1 | January 6, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Our Constitution was drafted behind closed doors and in strict secrecy, more than any of the secrecy attached to the HCR negotiations. Politics can be ugly and boring and tedious. I get the "for the historical record" part of it, but are people really going to watch this stuff on the tube? And, as lupercal noted, the administration really doesn't have much say over how the Congress conducts their business...that's the way our founders wanted it, like it or not. While transparency was far down my list of reasons why I supported Obama (and when/if the GOP did stuff like this, it never really bothered me...I had plenty of other reasons to be angry about their performance), releasing full WH visitors logs and, for the most, keeping lobbyists out of the administration, are more important to me then seeing the final stages of these negotitations happen on TV where, as Ezra correctly noted, it will be mostly show with the real work still going on behind closed doors.

And I just don't think most voters care whether or not this is televised. Wingnuts will scream because they look for any reason to scream about Obama, so that's not news or unexpected. Voters don't care about how laws are written...they care about the results. And if they don't like the results, then they have a chance every two-four years to vote out the people they think are to's not as if members of Congress won't be held accountable simply because they negotiated outside of the range of the TV cameras.

The reason this is a hot topic in the media is because it is the media who is most bothered and affected by this and because it's an easy story to cover. The Broders of the world will whine that it's just "business as usual" and bemoan the fact that there will be no Republicans in the room, even though the Republicans don't really want to be in the room. And the rest of the media-types are pissed because they'll have to rely on sources rather than getting a front row seat to what, again, would amount to a show and not real negotiations. Even if they were real negotiations, most of those covering them would focus more on process rather than substance. Good or bad stuff that resulted from these negotiations would be mostly ignored while journo-types focused most of their attention on feuds between liberals and Blue Dogs and who appeared to win the news cycle.

Much ado about nothing, I say.

Posted by: shamey73 | January 6, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

"Did Obama actually win any undecided voters by promising ...?"
WHAT? ARE U NUTS? Since when has it become the new ethics standard that "gratuitous" promises don't have to be fulfilled, Ezra? Come on, you can't spin that into any kind of new 21st century morals, it's still simply wrong, and you just pulled that argument out of a very dark place!

Obviously, you try to frame the question, as a defense for Obama, but fact is, it doesn't matter if Obama's promises helped him to convince any voters. Promises are promises, regardless if the person who makes them will gain from them or not! Nobody forced Obama to go out on a limb, he made those statements out of his free will, not at gunpoint. And the fact is, he not only broke those pledges, it's obvious that he didn't even try to fulfill them. So, he has absolutely no excuses!

And that you're going to such dishonest lengths to explain the truth away isn't any better than diehard Bush fans making up phony facts to defend their idol. This is shocking! Just look at you, what has become of you? You're now just another beltway creature willing to say everyting to defend the "serious people"! Shame on you.

Posted by: Gray62 | January 6, 2010 2:44 PM | Report abuse

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