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The Curse of Specificity--or Why Politicians Tell Lies : Politics: The only way to break the vicious circle of deception and frustration is for voters to insist on honesty and punish vagueness.

September 05, 1993|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.

As sure as death and taxes, the coming political season will be marked by attacks on candidates who are not specific enough on the issues, and by candidates responding with promises that they won't--or can't--keep. After the votes are counted, the scarred victors will spend their terms in office desperately trying to persuade voters to forget everything they said in the campaign. Is there any way out?

It's up to us. The only way to break the vicious circle of deception and frustration is for voters to insist on better--to reward candidates who dare to tell the truth, and to punish those who mouth generalities and manufacture lies.

Press complaints that candidates, particularly front-runners, aren't specific are a staple in U.S. politics. It's not surprising, for example, to hear opinion-makers complain that even though state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, front-runner for governor of California, is smart, articulate and well-liked across the ideological spectrum, she just isn't specific enough.

The problem is that in this age of climbing budget deficits, responding honestly is electorally dangerous. In most recent contests, the candidate with the most specific plan for balancing budgets and paying the bills has finished at the bottom of the heap. In 1988, for example, Bruce Babbitt, who promised to raise taxes, received the best press and the fewest votes of the major candidates in Iowa. In the 1992 primaries, the standard for specificity was set by Paul E. Tsongas, who said entitlement programs needed to be re-examined and that America couldn't afford a middle-class tax cut. His opponent, Bill Clinton, made him eat those words in Florida, warning senior citizens that Tsongas wanted cuts in Social Security. Tsongas got clobbered.

The least specific candidate, by contrast, was Ross Perot, who climbed to the top of the heap in the spring of 1992 based on nothing more detailed than his pledge to look under the hood and figure out why the car wasn't running. Indeed, when his campaign issued details some months later, he refused to embrace them.

Clinton was, by his own account, more specific about what he would do as President than any recent predecessor. The only problem has been that so many of the specific promises of 1992 have become the broken promises of 1993. There have been the Haitians; the issue of gays in the military, and the middle-class tax cut, not to mention the investment agenda to rebuild America, among others. The jury is still out on health-care reform, but it was not going to take many years according to candidate Clinton.

Specificity has also come back to haunt Richard Riordan. During the mayoral campaign, he was quite specific about one thing: 3,000 new police officers would be hired to turn L.A. around. Within days of his inauguration, however, the media reported that, even aside from budgetary concerns, it would be impossible for the Los Angeles Police Department to train and deploy that many new officers in four years.

Not every campaign promise, of course, is what is known in the secular world as a little white lie. Maybe the deficit numbers really did go up. Maybe Riordan really was in the dark about how many new officers could be deployed. But the common characteristic of most recent campaign promises is how good they sound in the summer, and how quickly they are forgotten. Remember: "Read my lips"?

Dishonesty, however, is not the only answer to calls for specificity. An even better trick is to be specific about things beyond your control. That way, you never have to break your promises; you get to blame others for not keeping them.

That was the beauty of Riordan's pledge that new taxes for law enforcement could be avoided by leasing out the airport--if only federal law didn't prevent it. It does, of course.

The genius of Pete Wilson's specific responses to illegal immigration is that his solutions, too, are beyond his control. His proposed constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants would require approval by two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the states. His call for repealing the federal mandate that requires states to provide basic health, welfare and education to immigrants would need congressional and presidential approval. Better still, he now supports the very constitutional amendment he opposed four months ago because the federal government has not responded favorably to California's request for more money to help offset the costs of illegal immigration borne by the state.

But the real problem is with us, the people. The reason successful politicians mouth vague generalities--or make false promises--is because that's what we reward them for. They don't trust their opponents not to shove the specifics down their throats, and they don't trust the voters not to punish them when that happens. If experience is a guide, they're right to be wary. Just ask Tsongas.

That's too bad--for all of us. Campaigns are one of the few times when the public tunes in to politics. They could be an occasion to debate the future, to educate, to build a consensus and develop a mandate--so if you do get elected, you might be able to accomplish something.

Instead, we get the silly season--candidates terrified that anything they say will be used against them, barrages of negative ads, promises that no serious person should believe in and leaders who enter office without any specific mandate to deal with the problems that beset us.

An increasingly cynical electorate understands that it's being lied to; that's one reason voters remain so angry. The question is whether voters are ready to translate that anger into a demand for honest specifics, and to back that demand with votes. Politicians are an adaptable lot. If it pays to tell the truth, and be specific, they will. If it doesn't, this political season will leave voters just as disgusted as the last one.*

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