December 4, 2022

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If there’s anything people can’t stand, it’s a broken campaign promise. The propensity of politicians to say one thing and do another is the citizen’s age-old lament.

Perhaps the only politicians the public dislikes more than the ones who don’t honor their commitments are those who do.

Or so it would appear from the recent ebb and flow of voter sentiment in the United States, which proves that matching deed to word can be the riskiest maneuver in politics.

The midterm election in November seems likely to be shaped by repercussions of three kept promises: President Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, per his 2020 campaign pledge; the conservative Supreme Court’s fulfillment of the perennial GOP commitment to overturn Roe v. Wade; and, most recently, Biden’s decision to deliver on student loan forgiveness.

Having hovered in the low 50s after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, Biden’s job approval in FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator abruptly plunged to 45 percent in the four weeks after Kabul fell on Aug. 15 last year, then trended down for 11 months. By then, even some Democrats were losing faith in Biden and feared a historic wipeout in the midterms, to be followed, perhaps, by intraparty calls for someone else to run in 2024.

Inflation and high gas prices exacerbated Biden’s decline. What triggered it, though, was the United States’ defeat by the Taliban, amid horrible scenes reminiscent of Saigon, 1975, including a suicide bomb blast that killed 13 U.S. service personnel and an estimated 170 Afghans.

Meanwhile, on June 24 this year, the Supreme Court, led by three conservative appointees of President Donald Trump, swept aside the 49-year-old constitutional right to abortion, meeting GOP voter expectations that Trump, like Republican predecessors since Ronald Reagan, had raised.

Less than a month later, on July 21, Biden’s approval rating bottomed out at 37.5 percent and began rising steadily, to 42.4 percent on Aug. 30. Perhaps more relevant, the “generic” voter preference for the House of Representatives has swung 2.8 percentage points toward the Democrats since the court’s ruling; they now lead by 0.5 points.

Moderating gas prices played a part. Clearly, though, the GOP is facing a backlash because it did what it said it would do about abortion.

In both Biden’s Afghanistan pullout and the court majority’s Roe reversal, sympathetic insiders tried to dissuade the decision-makers. Biden’s military advisers proposed a residual U.S. and NATO force; Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. urged his fellow conservatives to limit Roe, not overrule it.

As temporizers often do, these argued that their approach would buy stability: Biden’s generals said even a few Western boots on the ground would help the Kabul government survive; Roberts told colleagues his approach would avoid “a serious jolt to the legal system.”

In each case, the response was, in effect, “Let’s get on with it.” “There was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the court majority that Roberts’s “quest for a middle way would only put off the day when we would be forced to confront the question we now decide.”

Thus did Biden and the court dare to convert what had long been hypothetical situations into here-and-now realities; the benefits, if any, were diffuse but the negative consequences, foreseen and otherwise, were concentrated, keenly felt and inevitably dominated media coverage. In Kabul, it was the airport debacle; on abortion, the plight of women and girls suddenly denied access even where many conservatives thought it might be justified.

In short, keeping promises can make leaders seem trustworthy, except when it makes them seem stubborn, overzealous or resistant to wise advice — i.e., untrustworthy.

How might Biden’s order to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 annually, and $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients, play out?

This promise, too, he kept despite advice — from advisers who told him it would be a multi-hundred-billion-dollar windfall for the upper middle class, and thus a political windfall to Republicans. Doing it without fresh congressional authorization is also questionable, as Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) themselves acknowledged last year. It’s telling that several swing-state Democratic Senate candidates have publicly distanced themselves from Biden’s move.

And yet, as advocates in the Senate and White House understood, this is one kept promise whose benefits will be concentrated and visible, to debtors, and whose costs will be diffuse and nontransparent, to taxpayers. Advocates consider it easier for Democrats to evoke gratitude from the former group than for Republicans to foment grievance among the latter.

A CBS News poll finding 54 percent approval for Biden’s plan supports this intuition. An Emerson College poll taken in Georgia after Biden’s announcement, showing Republican challenger Herschel Walker moving 2 points ahead of debt-relief advocate Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D), does not.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” It might be no accident Walt Whitman wrote that in 1855, a time, alarmingly like our own, of ideological flux and partisan polarization.

In politics, consistency must sometimes yield to pragmatism — and vice versa. Whatever happens in November, that trade-off, and the need for leaders skilled at managing it, will still be with us.

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