Keeping campaign promises could be disastrous

Last week 20 Washoe County residents filed a new political party for the state — the Nevada Constitution Party.

Las Vegas Review-Journal capitol reporter Ed Vogel wrote, “Otilia Krapff, the executive director of the new party, said every state but Nevada already has a Constitution Party and she and the others want governments to downsize, taxes to be lowered, term-limits placed on federal elected officials and ‘people elected who say what they are going to do and stick with it.’ ”

Actually, Nevada does already have a Constitution Party. It’s just not called that. Nevada’s Independent American Party, which was formed as a vehicle for George Wallace’s 1968 presidential candidacy, is the Nevada affiliate of the Constitution Party. Last year, the IAP’s line on the Nevada ballot was given over to CP presidential nominee Virgil Goode, the IAP hosted Nevada appearances of Goode, and the IAP’s Janine Hansen is the Western states chairwoman of the Constitution Party.

But that wasn’t the part that really caught my eye in Vogel’s story. It was the quote from Krapff that political candidates should “say what they are going to do and stick with it.”

Why is that a good idea?

Imagine that a candidate ran for the House in the 1938 election on a campaign of “no new taxes.” Starting in 1940, the Congress started enacting the largest tax increases in U.S. history, first to pay for military preparedness and then, after 1941, for war against Japan and Germany. Should that candidate have stuck with his anti-tax position?

In 1928 Herbert Hoover was elected president as a laissez faire candidate who would continue President Calvin Coolidge’s hands-off attitude toward the business community. When that unregulated business community caused the massive financial collapse that caused the Great Depression, Hoover was as good as his word. For three years after the stock market crash, Hoover kept his campaign promise, refusing to use federal power to revive the economy. His commitment to small government and laissez faire economics prevented him from doing anything substantive, and his belief that the business community would right itself and the nation caused the Depression to stretch out for the rest of his term and become almost a semi-permanent institution. And when Hoover did act, he sometimes made things worse, prolonging the Depression, as when he pitted the U.S. against the world’s businesspeople by signing a high tariff law.

It was tragic for those who lived in misery and even died of disease or malnutrition that Hoover could not change his position.

In Nevada in 1950, Republican Charles Russell was elected governor on a pledge not to raise taxes. He had failed to anticipate what effect that pledge would have on the state’s parents and children in the entirely foreseeable postwar frenzy. The troops had come home from World War II mostly in 1946. It was during Russell’s governorship that the baby boom started being felt in state and local programs and agencies and, above all, in the schools.

The Nevada birthrate jumped 57 percent in the first five months of 1947 over the same period of 1946. The state’s school system neared collapse. A state that always had low taxes suddenly could not pay for desperately needed school construction and the cost of educating the largest classes in history.

Parents organized to demand higher taxes, but Russell decided to stick with his campaign pledge. Nevadans lost four long years because it was held hostage to his promise. In 1954 he was re-elected without a no-taxes pledge and the state was finally able to pay for an adequate (although not more) school system. Until then, baby boomers had suffered through inferior early educations.

The first George Bush is often faulted for breaking his 1988 “no new taxes” pledge. But imagine the economic consequences if he had not. During the Reagan decade the nation had lived on hot checks and its economy was being damaged by the consequences of deficit spending. The deficit had more than tripled in 10 years and was a drag on the economy.

Franklin Roosevelt, who replaced Hoover as president, once said that he believed he should “take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

Keeping every campaign promise would have a nice abstract, ivory tower symmetry, but in the real world it would be a disaster. Those like the Constitution Party organizers want candidate allegiance to dogma, not candidates who learn from experience.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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