The Race for President

Article excerpt

The first time an American president's policies defied all the promises made during his campaign occurred in 1800.

Thomas Jefferson's platform called for a reduction of federal (especially executive) power, fiscal austerity aimed at reducing the national debt and strict interpretation of the Constitution. The opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory in 1803 threw all of these Jeffersonian principles into the proverbial cocked hat.

As it turned out, in order to acquire an empire, one had to become an imperial president. Jefferson, albeit reluctantly, did just that.

The same paradoxical pattern repeated itself on several notable occasions in the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of World War I in 1912 but took us to war in 1917.

Lyndon Johnson vowed that American boys would never be sent to Vietnam but reversed himself in 1965.

Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" that could not be trusted, then proceeded to negotiate the greatest reduction in nuclear weapons of all time.

Although the 21st century is just getting started, already the paradoxical pattern has continued. George W. Bush campaigned as an opponent of any sustained American role as global policeman. But his response to Sept. 11, 2001, made the United States a pre-emptive, unilateral world power with boundless global ambitions and responsibilities.

If you look at this pattern squarely, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, as often as not, what presidential candidates say to get elected has absolutely no predictive power about what they will actually do as president.

If you push the pattern to its outer limits, it suggests that presidential policies often end up contradicting campaign promises. And if you apply this logic to the current presidential campaigns, voters who regard American withdrawal from Iraq as their highest priority should not vote for any of the three leading Democrat candidates -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards - - but instead for Republican John McCain.

There is something perverse about this way of thinking and the pattern itself, though disarmingly frequent, is not surefire through history. But the reasons for its prevalence are rooted in two political realities that go all the way back to Jefferson's election.

First, campaigns are inherently exercises in propaganda and posturing, the posing of melodramatic choices usually defined by candidates' contorted exercises against stereotypical versions of the opposition. The real-world choices facing a president seldom fit into these operatic campaign categories. So picking a president is a little like picking a long-distance runner exclusively on the basis of his (or her) talent at running wind sprints.

A corollary is that it is almost impossible to know who can make the transition from candidate to president brilliantly, let alone successfully. …