Right after Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, New York Times columnist James Reston reassured his readers that President Carter was not going to "swallow his own campaign baloney."
The assertion that Carter's campaign had been full of "baloney" was hardly flattering. But Reston was alluding to the fact that once they had been elected, presidents and members of Congress normally switched from campaigning to governing — two radically different modes of political behavior.
In campaign mode candidates tend to emit baloney, to exaggerate, and even to lie. Oddly enough, "candidates" often can't afford to be candid, to say what they really think. They choose words based on a calculation of their consequences: maximizing the number of voters they will please and minimizing those they will offend.
In campaign mode, politicians exaggerate and simplify. They make promises that could not possibly all be carried out. Carrying out some of their promises would be incompatible with carrying out others.
Their promises are also unrealistic since implementing them usually requires cooperation from other parts of the government, cooperation which often cannot be gotten.
When they have switched into governing mode, political leaders do not hold campaign rallies. They stop oversimplifying the measures needed to tackle national problems and start doing nuance. They try to talk sense and to do cost-benefit analysis.
In governing mode presidents must avoid overstating things. Instead, they should educate people to understand the complexity of actual life and the need to make policy decisions carefully. They do not speak off the cuff or articulate every thought and feeling they have at the moment. They do not engage in tweetstorms.
As Calvin Coolidge said, after leaving the White House, "The words of the president have enormous weight and ought not be used indiscriminately."
In governing mode, Congress used to act like a coequal branch of our government whose members took their constitutional powers and responsibilities seriously. Voting along strictly partisan lines was often limited to selecting Senate and House leaders. Most important decisions from one issue to the next were supported and opposed by different ad hoc coalitions of members from both parties.
President Biden's predecessor continued to hold campaign rallies throughout his four years in the White House and never kicked into governing mode. It would have been interesting to see what he could have accomplished by governing.
Why has it gotten so hard for members of Congress to switch from campaigning to governing when that was not the case in previous generations? Part of the answer may lie in the development in 1979 of C-SPAN, the TV cable channels focusing on Congress.
C-SPAN was started with the best of intentions and has contributed a good deal to our public life. But it has also produced unfortunate side effects. Since its channels cover full sessions of the House and Senate floors, they present a terrible temptation for members of Congress to get national attention by giving long, detailed speeches to a chamber that (unperceived by the TV audience) is almost completely empty.
Although it may sound as if the speaker is discussing policy, in actuality the speaker may still be in campaign rather than governing mode. In governing mode one does not waste much time addressing galleries where no colleagues are listening.
This TV opportunity is greatly valued by politicians. Some might be considering a run for the presidency. Others may seek to please the various interests from whom they hope to harvest campaign donations. At least they can show home state viewers that they have been honored to address Congress.
It looks as if President Biden has decided to follow the usual tradition of switching into governing mode. Now if he could only persuade Congress to do a similar switcheroo.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966 and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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