As politicians go, President Obama has a decent record of keeping campaign promises.
PolitiFact tallies progress on more than 500 promises Obama made in 2008 and 2012. According to that “Obameter,” the president has kept 45 percent of them, compromised on 25 percent, and broken 22 percent. The remaining 8 percent are either “stalled” or “in the works.”
Considering that politicians tend to over-promise and that Obama has spent most of his presidency at odds with a Congress that considers anything he suggests dead-on-arrival, this is quite an achievement.
I mention Obama’s promises because, this year, one presidential candidate seems to be making particularly big commitments. So I wondered: Does Bernie Sanders making more audacious promises than the typical candidate, or does he just seem to be making them?
There are two ways to answer that question. One is to think about ambition.
For example, Sanders says he’d replace private health insurance with “Medicare for All.” Just to give you an idea of the scale: He’s proposing to fund his new single-payer system with payroll, individual and other tax increases that will amount $14 trillion over a decade. At the same time, he says, most families would more than recoup those tax hikes by saving even more on insurance premiums. Whether Medicare for All nets positively or negatively for most people, we’re no longer talking about simply shaking up a sector that comprise 20 percent of the U.S. economy (as we were during the Obamacare debate); Sanders is advocating turning the entire healthcare system on its head — and in the case of private health insurance, basically eliminating it.
Which brings us to the second criteria for evaluating the audacity of Sanders’ as promises: How plausible are they?
It’s difficult to top Donald Trump when it comes to implausibility. Not only does Trump promise to build a wall along the entire Mexico-US border (a project that would rival Sanders’ Medicare for All in cost), but he says he’ll get Mexico to pay for it.
Here in the real world, though, Sanders’ healthcare “revolution” qualifies as pretty darned optimistic. Getting a very conservative Republican Congress to approve a plan that’s far more ambitious and more to the left of Obamacare seems a pretty tall order. That’s especially true when you consider how much political capital the current president spent during the epic battle over the Affordable Care Act, which in many ways isn’t even over. And it seems more of a pipe dream when you consider how unlikely it is that Sanders will enter office in as politically strong a position as Obama was in 2009 — with big majorities in both houses of Congress. It’s as if a spindly shortstop thinks he ought to swing for the fences right after the team’s slugger barely beat out a bunt single.
“Medicare for All” is the grandest of Sanders’ promises. But dozens more of his commitments read like a progressive Democratic wish list . New taxes on Wall Street would be used to zero out college tuitions. Payroll taxes would fund paid family leave. Planned Parenthood wouldn’t just see its funding preserved, it would receive a boost in funding. A carbon tax would be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And so on.
All these ideas have three things in common: 1. Liberal Democrats have pushed these very same things for many years. 2. They require congressional action. 3. Congress isn’t close to seriously considering them.
Sanders supporters counter the skeptics by insisting that, once Sanders is in the White House, Americans will wake up to his wisdom of and elect a Sanders-friendly Congress — much as Burlington, Vt., residents installed a Sanders-friendly City Council two years after he was first elected mayor.
Just consider the plausibility of that for a moment. Somehow they overlook the differences between 1981 Burlington and 2017 Washington, between Burlington’s City Hall and Congress, between K Street and the Burlington Chamber of Commerce. If Obama’s campaign biography was called The Audacity of Hope, Sanders should be called The Audacity of Fantasy.
It’s not unusual for politicians to win while making big promises they can’t keep. Ronald Reagan claimed he’d balance the budget while cutting income taxes by 30 percent. George W. Bush ran for re-election on a platform that promised hydrogen cars and a NASA mission to Mars.
This year, Trump is in a league of his own — not just with the wall, but with commitments he flings out on the stump as seemingly extemporaneous campaign fodder. Last month, the Washington Post catalogued “76 of Donald Trump’s many campaign promises.”
But Trump’s were off-the-cuff remarks made in the heat-of-campaigning speeches. The difference is that Sanders is offering painfully detailed policy proposals. The similarity? Both men’s promises stand about the same chance of becoming reality.