Why presidential candidates have to lie in debates

by Alan Cohen

Everyone likes to complain about all the lies in politics and how dirty politicians are. And of course politics is full of lies, and a truthful politician is a rare thing. But what we rarely ask ourselves is why. People become politicians for many reasons: greed, ambition, narcissism, or a sincere wish to change the world and to help people. Usually, it’s probably some combination of these factors. But I actually think that most politicians are good people who would like to make a difference for the causes they believe in (at least in most modern democracies). The reason politicians lie and there’s so much corruption is because there’s really not much choice, given the world we live in. Here’s why, using the presidential debates as an example.

Imagine you are Mitt Romney or Barack Obama going into a debate (pick your preferred candidate). You honestly believe that you can help the country, and that your opponent’s policies will be a disaster. You believe – correctly or not – that many things rest on your being elected: Will people have jobs and health coverage? Can we protect America and avoid unnecessary wars? Can we protect American values? If you truly believe this, you should be wiling to do a lot t make sure you get elected. In fact, if you are not willing to make some compromises (such as white lies and minor distortions here and there) to get elected, you’re probably not well enough in touch with the real world to successfully manage a country.

During the debate, your opponent will press your weaknesses. He will bring up the things he thinks you can’t explain well. If you’re Obama, he’ll bring up why deficits have grown to more than $1 trillion when you said they’d go down. If you’re Romney, he’ll bring up that thing you said way back when even though you didn’t mean it before you changed your mind (again). If you don’t respond clearly and forcefully within your allotted two minutes, you’ll look like Obama did in the first debate. Your opponent will win. The country will be worse off (or so you believe).

The problem is that many of these subjects have complicated answers that cannot be reduced to two-minute sounds bites. The honest answer might be a good one, but it doesn’t sound good in the context of a modern, televised debate. You have to lie or lose. Let’s look at several specific examples. I’ll pick mostly examples where Obama couldn’t give an honest answer because, as president, he has been more subject to the complex constraints of having to govern and do things that may look or sound bad, but are necessary.

Example 1: Why didn’t you do more to protect our diplomats in Libya?

Obama actually did well in this segment of the debate, but he didn’t really answer the initial question. He said, as he had to, “The buck stops with me,” but he didn’t really mean it, at least in the sense that there wasn’t much he could or should have done differently. If you’re president of the US, you have more important things to do with your time than micromanage the assignment of security details to every embassy (much less consulate) in the world. Most of the personnel and functional system of the State Department and CIA involved in such decisions was there before you were president and will be there after you’re gone. More to the point, you’re not an expert in assignment of security details, and more often than not better decisions will be made by letting the experts handle it.

On the other hand, if you’re president of the US, sometimes things will go wrong on your watch. Someone under you will make a mistake. That person (or group) may be generally competent, but the mistake may happen nonetheless. The person may be incompetent, but may well be someone you’ve never met. Or it may just have been a no-win situation, in which anything this person did would look bad. We don’t yet know enough detail about what happened in Libya, but it seems someone made a mistake in assigning security details. This decision was certainly never reviewed by Obama, and probably never even by anyone directly appointed by Obama.

So the honest answer would have been something like: “I’m really sorry about what happened, but in a complex organization like the State Department, hundreds of decisions get made every day about security, policy, and so forth. Most of these decisions are things that are far removed from my direct control. Sometimes bad decisions will get made and mistakes happen. This was one of those times. I’d like to think, however, that the rate of mistakes has not been particularly high under my leadership. More specifically, I’d like to think that I haven’t done anything to encourage more mistakes than usual. I’d also like to think that the large strategic picture, which I do control, is going about as well as might be expected given the complexities in the region and the extremely difficult decisions I’ve had to make.”

Doesn’t sound that good does it? But it doesn’t sound bad because Obama is incompetent – it sounds bad because the world is a complex place that a president can’t personally control very well. Admitting that sounds weak, even if it’s true.

Example #2; Romney accuses Obama of letting deficits double rather than halving them as promised

Romney’s accusation is not technically accurate; nonetheless, it is true that Obama has not kept his promise to halve the deficit, and that deficits are much, much larger than before he took office. It was probably a stupid promise for Obama to have made, but at the same time the deficits are only minimally his fault. Why are the deficits large? Most of the reason is that tax revenue is low when people are unemployed and economic growth is low, while at the same time expenditures are large when more people than usual qualify for food stamps, unemployment benefits, and so forth. Some of the deficits are also due to the Bush tax cuts, the ongoing wars (which Obama was working to wind down), the stimulus bill, subsequent payroll tax cuts, and so forth. Most independent economists believe that the stimulus did help the economy and may have prevented a severe depression, but it did not help the economy as much as Obama said it would. So the deficits are not due to Obama loving to spend as much as possible; the main contributor from an Obama-chosen spending perspective is the stimulus bill, which was a one-time deal but probably actually helped reduce future deficits by promoting economic growth.

Obama’s honest answer here? “It’s true I didn’t keep my promise to halve the deficit. It was not a smart promise to have made (but, then again, people make dumb promises during campaigns). However, much of the deficits are due to things beyond my control: two wars, the Bush tax cuts, and the weak economy following a financial collapse that happened before I was president. I guess you could make the argument that I should have grown the economy faster, but growth is just about on par for what can be expected historically after recessions due to a financial crisis. Some people say growth might have been faster if I had acted differently on housing, for example, but I didn’t really have much leeway to act given the powers of certain bureaucrats I didn’t appoint and arguably couldn’t replace, depending on your interpretation of the law. With hindsight, I might have made a few different choices, but overall I think we’ve done a relatively good job given the constraints we’ve had coming in and the severity of the crisis. Of course it would have been nice to pass my jobs bill, but Republicans in congress blocked that. I also would have liked to strike a grand bargain on future debt reduction, but Republicans refused to compromise on taxes and I didn’t have enough leverage or power to force them to. Still, I’d really like to reduce the deficit in my next term, and I’ll work really hard to force a major budgetary overhaul.”

Again, this sounds weak. It sounds like he’s making excuses. But the reality is the president doesn’t have all that much power: he inherits a lot of political and economic momentum from his predecessor, and he is constrained by a small-c conservative political structure that gives a lot of power to congress, bureaucrats, and so forth. It’s really hard to know if Obama did a fantastic job on the economy given the circumstances, or a kind of middling but not disastrous job. How much better might the best imaginable president have done? No one knows – Obama probably doesn’t even know himself!

Example #3: Obama to Romney – why did you suggest that illegal immigrants should self-deport?

Take this as a proxy for any of Romney’s many flip-flops. Who knows what Romney actually believes. It is clear that he will say just about anything to get elected. But this whole post is about why it’s impossible to get elected president while being completely honest, so let’s forgive him that. Accordingly, his honest response (as I imagine it – who really knows?):

“Actually, immigration policy is not really a priority for me. I made a rather extreme statement during the primaries because I had a reputation as a moderate and the only way to win the Republican primaries was to make even more extreme statements than everyone else. I don’t really believe everyone should self-deport, nor that we should have extremely harsh immigration laws. At the same time, I’m also not particularly concerned about making laws that make immigration easy. It’s not that I want people to suffer; it’s just not a priority for me. My main concern about immigration is to have a functional international labor market so that companies in the US can hire the best workers for their needs with minimal hassle. This means streamlining the process for high-skilled workers to get visas. Otherwise, the status quo seems to work pretty well: poor Mexicans come to the US and work illegally. The fact that they are working illegally keeps their wages low, driving down costs of business and keeping prices low for Americans, while still providing jobs that are attractive to the Mexicans. It’s not completely fair, but life is not completely fair, and any comprehensive solution would drive up prices for Americans. If Mexicans don’t like it, they can stay in Mexico.”

Again, this sounds pretty bad. Still, it’s not a completely crazy position, and it’s not a position that indicates he would be a bad president (depending on your priorities – his would not be mine on this). There are three main constituencies in the immigration debates: immigrants, companies that hire them, and people that don’t like them and want to keep them out. My money is on Romney’s sympathies lying with the companies.

Taken together, these examples show why it is impossible to get elected as a completely honest presidential candidate. The honest response sounds bad. Most of the reason for this is because our expectations are too high, both for the men and the office. Presidents are not dictators, and their powers have limits. Even dictators operate in a world where other forces constrain their actions, force their hands, and sometime make them choose among awful alternatives. But the electorate doesn’t want to hear details, excuses, and complexities. Until we the people are willing to accept imperfection, nuance, and detail, we cannot hope to have honesty from our politicians, especially not in the modern managed media climate. So, fellow voters, blame yourselves, not the politicians, for the lies they tell. We force their hands.

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