In defense of covering position papers and official statements

Most of the time, what politicians say is what they'll do

In his latest Swing States column, Walter Shapiro grapples with the question of why campaign issue coverage is not only “yawn-inducing” but also, often, wrong about what future presidents will do in office. He pins the blame on the “obtuse literalness” of much of that reporting: its reliance on position papers and official statements, and its absence of journalistic imagination. It’s an incisive phrase, and it gets at what Shapiro aptly calls “a chronic journalistic malady—passivity when it comes to framing stories about issues.”

Issue coverage that goes where the campaigns lead and no further—that cedes the agenda to the campaigns—is a real problem, and the more active, more creative issues coverage that Shapiro calls for is well worth striving for. (Disclosure: I edited the column, which amounted to moving around a few punctuation marks and putting it into CJR house style.)

But I want to offer a defense of workaday, literal-minded reporting on position papers and official statements as well. That’s because, much of the time, those papers and statements are pretty good guides to what aspiring office-holders will do. There’s some relevant research on this point, which Jonathan Bernstein summarized for Washington Monthly earlier this year:

Political scientists, however, have been studying this question for some time, and what they’ve found is that out-and-out high-profile broken pledges like George H. W. Bush’s are the exception, not the rule. That’s what two book-length studies from the 1980s found. Michael Krukones in Promises and Performance: Presidential Campaigns as Policy Predictors (1984) established that about 75 percent of the promises made by presidents from Woodrow Wilson through Jimmy Carter were kept. In Presidents and Promises: From Campaign Pledge to Presidential Performance (1985), Jeff Fishel looked at campaigns from John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. What he found was that presidents invariably attempt to carry out their promises; the main reason some pledges are not redeemed is congressional opposition, not presidential flip-flopping. Similarly, Gerald Pomper studied party platforms, and discovered that the promises parties made were consistent with their postelection agendas. More recent and smaller-scale papers have confirmed the main point: presidents’ agendas are clearly telegraphed in their campaigns.

In short: most of the time, politicians do—or at least try to do—what they say they’ll do.

That isn’t to say that reporters should just be stenographers, or accept all campaign positions at face value. Exceptions to the rule do happen, and they can be anticipated by intelligent journalism. If memory serves, two of Barack Obama’s more blatant about-faces on domestic policy—his embrace of a healthcare mandate, and his abandonment of a critical line on NAFTA—were in fact anticipated by many media members, who noted that Obama’s original positions put him at odds with the elite policy consensus in his party.

Those flips may have been easy to predict, but a similarly skeptical approach might come in handy in harder cases. Bernstein writes that one reason presidents tend to make good on promises is that the same people who draft campaign proposals end up shaping official policy. As Shapiro notes, this rule of thumb was not much help in anticipating Obama’s foreign policy stance, because his leading campaign surrogates ended up playing little to no role in office. Entrepreneurial issue coverage during the campaign—coverage that was willing to take some risks in seeing the future—might have observed that since about the McKinley administration, the bipartisan institutional trend has been for the executive branch to consolidate power over foreign policy and national security issues, and to use that power aggressively. Advisers whose advice isn’t consistent with that trend are likely to become ex-advisers.

Some other to-be-sures: the more high-profile a position is, the harder it is to abandon. And, with few exceptions, positions on how to pursue a goal are lower-profile than whether to pursue it. Also, while politicians don’t often break promises, they do overpromise; presidents in particular need to make decisions about which of their statements from the campaign trail remain high priorities once they’re in office.

But even with all those caveats in mind, there remains a good case for taking campaign promises seriously. And as reporters try—as they should—to discern how politicians might respond to important challenges that aren’t being discussed on the campaign trail, they should take the promises that are being made into account. If Obama wins re-election, after all, the budget endgame he seeks from the Taxmageddon standoff will be shaped by the leverage he can wield in negotiations with Congress—but also by his repeated promises not to raise taxes on middle-class households. (There will be partisan disputes about what counts as a tax for the purposes of the promise, of course, but Obama is unlikely to discard the pledge.) Limited as position papers and official statements may be, for journalists trying to get onto the “Reality Track”, they’re a good place to start.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.