The Presidential High Dive
As cynical Americans, we hardly expect our politicians to do in office what they promised to do on the campaign trail. But many presidents end up doing just the opposite of what they promised, speeding away from their original platform like an Olympian diving off the 10 meter- though rarely with such purpose or grace.
Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Within five months, he was asking Congress to declare war against Germany.
Franklin Roosevelt called President Hoover a profligate spender and promised to balance the budget and reign in spending. But once in office he quickly surpassed Hoover, increasing government spending and defecits to peacetime records.
On the campaign trail in 2000, then-Governor Bush criticized Clinton and Gore for their attempts at “nation-building”, and said he would never do such a thing. Less than a year after he was elected, President Bush had decided to give nation-building a try in Afghanistan, soon followed by a larger and less necessary attempt in Iraq.
Were these men simply lying to get elected? I don’t think its so simple; I suspect all of them, especially Bush, intended to follow through on their rhetoric. They changed their minds in response to changing circumstances- like unrestricted German submarine warfare, a persistent depression, or the Sept 11th attacks. There is a least a modicum of honesty and legitimacy in these actions.
But the fact remains that these men were given power by an electorate because of what they promised to do. Some of those who voted for Bush in 2000 in hopes of a less activist foreign policy were deeply dissapointed with his change of heart; some Floridians especially must have been driven to despair knowing what their hand had helped to wreak.
But what can we do as voters? How can we know what a presidential candidate would really do, when they may not even know themselves? Given the history just cited, it almost seems as if the best bet is to vote for the candidate with the beliefs most nearly opposite one’s own. But really, it is probably best to roll the dice given the information we have. Looking at the records and speeches of Obama and McCain, we can gain a little information. It may not cover everything; it may be contradictory already; it will almost certainly be contradicted later. But voters too must take the plunge, and hope the pool we are aiming for turns out to be where we think it is.