What’s in a campaign promise?
This is Trahant Reports.
Elections are geared so that voters will hear all sorts of promises only to find out later they will never come to be.
There are certainly a lot of promises flying around in the 2016 presidential campaign, promises that have absolutely no chance unless voters elect a new House of Representatives and a new Senate (which is mathematically impossible when only one third of that body is even up for election).
Like it or not the American system of government is designed to change slowly.
So campaigns repeat broad themes. The promises are aspirations, not contracts.
Consider the messaging to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Nearly every candidate promises to uphold treaty rights. Yet that sweeping statement never translates into full funding for, well, say, Indian health. Or even a proposed budget for full funding.
While dozens of federal agencies are funded via automatic spending, programs designed to implement treaties with tribes must go through the appropriations process. That makes it inevitable to spend less on American Indian and Alaska Native patients.
In his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama was both aspirational and practical.
In May 2008 he said:
“Too often Washington has paid lip service to working with tribes. While taking a one size fits all approach working with tribal communities across the nation. That will change when I am President of the United States.”
That big promise, the aspiration, was impossible and so the president like every other politician in the White House never proposed budgets that would implement treaty obligations.
But Obama was also practical, setting a new standard.
He listened to tribes through a government-to-government discourse, added Indian health to his health care reform ideas, supported tribal criminal jurisdiction, including the Violence Against Women Act. Indeed, the list of practical promises fulfilled could fill an entire column. A perfect record? No. But an extraordinary list of successes that ought to be a basis for what comes next.
That’s where the discussion about 2016 begins.
So far Republicans running are focused on their base and are unlikely to propose either aspirational or practical policies for Indian Country. This is telling. You would think that this week, with the Oklahoma primary, there would at least be an aspirational message from the campaigns.
On the Democratic side both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are detailing what they would do in office.
Their ideas are practical, ranging from executive orders to appointments. That’s good. But we also need big ideas, proposals that could change the future.
I like this idea, how about a candidate who says, “I will fight to have Indian Health funded at the same level that the government spends on health care for its own employees.”
It’s during the campaign when aspirations matter. The practical it can wait.
I’m Mark Trahant reporting.