I don’t know much about smoking crack, or about being president or a bigwig in Congress. Telling voters something that isn’t true knowing that they will believe what you say because they think they have finally found an honest politician is probably a pretty good high, though. It might be better than crack. Who knows? If you are curious you could ask Toronto’s mayor, or if you want to know what it feels like to spew falsehoods and be believed you could ask one of our own politicians. We can give Mayor Ford credit for one thing. At least we know that part of what he says is probably the truth. Why would a public official lie about the things he claims to have done? If you lie in politics it should at least get you something. That’s why finessing dishonesty is so important when you hold public office.
Being an honest politician is not the same thing as being honest.
Honesty in politics depends on what you want to accomplish. When Democrats decided to pass the Affordable Care Act Obama supporters heard that we needed to crack down on insurance companies and hold them accountable for their misdeeds. When did health insurers become the good guys? When the president needed them on his side, like he did during a make-nice session with industry executives last week:
We all share a similar value, which is we want to make sure that Americans have good, solid coverage that gives them the security they need for themselves and their family members if and when they get sick.¹
Is that similar value something new? Maybe he meant the shared value between government and insurance companies that voters and customers exist to be screwed. Perhaps when your own dishonesty is revealed it makes it easier to commiserate with those you used to enjoy vilifying.
An honest politician tells you what you bought, not what you were sold.
Whoever first said “You bought it. Now you have to pay for it.” probably wasn’t thinking about honesty in politics. The person who first told the story about the old woman and the snake almost certainly was. Mayor Ford assumed the honest politician role by telling his constituents and anyone else listening who and what they had sitting in the mayor’s chair in Toronto. Voters put him in office and now they are paying for it. Will this kind of enlightened 21st century political honesty ever catch on in America?
We are sadly familiar with fervent denials like “I did not have sex with that woman.” They are usually followed by promises of a vigorous defense against unfounded accusations, hints at political persecution, and then apologies for violating the public trust. During the last big presidential morality scandal Clinton supporters were too starry-eyed to care and the rest of us weren’t surprised at what we were hearing, anyway. We just didn’t like being lied to.
Bigger lies hurt a lot more than denying extramarital hijinks and Washington tells some whoppers (see: Government Sells Failure With Lies and Blame). The Obamacare lies are going to hurt. The jobless recovery lies already have:
The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government — oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.²
What would honesty have meant in the 2012 election? If we had heard promises like these we would have known we had an honest politician on the ballot:
Everything I say is to get your vote. What do you want me to say?
I get paid whether you work or not and will be set for life after this gig, anyway.
I can’t help the middle class, but they’re a better excuse to spend than rich people.
I have a lot more in common with the white upper class than our underprivileged minorities but I need their support and face it, who else are they going to vote for?
Even if my policies ruin us I can spin them well enough to get away with it.
When Obamacare hits, look out. Geez, someone should have thought this one through.
We might not have enjoyed hearing these things, but at least we’d have known we finally had truth in politics. What’s the difference between a crack-smoking mayor and the man in our White House? One of them is an honest politician.