Selling Anchovy Ice Cream

This commentary aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered on February 20, 2008. Audio is here.

A friend of mine told me the other day he’s planning to vote for John McCain. Why? Because McCain promises to keep the Bush tax cuts and my friend thinks that a good idea.

Why would my friend think that John McCain will keep the cuts—after all, he voted against them as a Senator.

My friend said, well, McCain said he’d keep the cuts.

I know. It seems pretty absurd doesn’t it? Ridiculous, really. Who actually believes what politicians say? But my friend who likes McCain is no fool. He’s probably read more history books than a lot of history professors. I’d never call him naïve. But he wants to like one of the candidates and McCain is his best shot. So he’s managed to convince himself that McCain is going to keep the tax cuts.

I have to conclude that my friend is living in something of a fantasy world. But he’s not alone. Any one who’s passionate about a candidate is doing the same thing. Hillary is promising universal health care. And why should we believe she’ll keep that promise? Because she says so. Where’s the evidence she’ll succeed the second time around?

Outside of politics, we’re usually a little more down to earth when it comes to rhetoric and promises. Suppose you see an ad for anchovy ice cream. The ad promises “It’s delicious!” Convinced? Probably not. You take that word “delicious” with a grain of salt. Actually more than a grain. More like a pound. You realize that the seller of the ice cream is self-interested and just trying to make a sale.

I treat the rhetoric of politicians like ads for anchovy ice cream. Call me a cynic, but I assume they’re trying to make a sale.

So when Obama says on his web site that he’s tired of “divisive ideological politics,” I wonder: what other kind of politics is there? Promising politics without “divisive ideology” is like selling a sure fire way to be a millionaire , working from home using the Internet. Most of us know it’s too good to be true. But Obama is selling like hotcakes even though his promise is just as unrealistic.

We have such a yearning for a candidate with principles and ideals. We like to think our candidate is the good one, it’s the other guy’s favorite who’s the evil opportunist. But they always break our hearts, don’t they? Too many of us, I fear, are living in a fantasy world.

Once in office, they all want to be popular. They like power more than principle. They respond to the political winds, rather than the rhetoric that got them elected. And when they break their promises because it’s politically expedient, they always have a justification.

The good news? That evil candidate from the other party that you hate, isn’t nearly as dangerous as you think. Once in office, he or she will listen to the public rather than to principles. It happens every time.

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