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.
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