Why it may not matter if President Trump keeps his promises

President-elect Donald Trump is backing off of some of his more dramatic campaign promises, but – and don’t breathe a word of this to George H.W. Bush – neither his supporters nor his opponents seem very upset.

Studies show that most presidential candidates have honored most of their campaign promises. Once elected, however, everyone compromises, backtracks or fudges to some extent.

Trump will be no exception, judging from his comments during the past week. He’s said he wouldn’t necessarily build a wall along every inch of the Mexican border; would focus deportation efforts not on all illegal immigrants, but on those with criminal records; and try to retain some redeeming facets of Obamacare.

For a variety reasons – including his supporters’ love of him, his opponents’ hatred of his proposals and a general acknowledgement that Trump is best taken seriously but not literally – this president may prove more immune than most to the political cost of broken promises.

John McGlennon teaches government at the College of William & Mary: “Both sides are willing to give him more flexibility than a conventional candidate would be allowed.’’

More, certainly, than the 41st president. Bush failed to win re-election in 1992 after campaigning in 1988 on a promise — “Read my lips: No new taxes!’’ – he later felt compelled to break.

Possibly because few major candidates have run for president with such drastic proposals, many Trump opponents are relieved that he apparently won’t try to do everything he said he’d do. And many Trump supporters say they never really expected him to do everything he said he’d do.

First, some Trump opponents.

“I prayed that he would have a change of heart, that he’d realize that some things he said he’d do he cannot do,’’ such as vaporize the Affordable Care Act, says Angelina Iles, a retired school employee who lives in Pineville, La., and voted for Hillary Clinton.

With that prayer seemingly answered, she has another: “That he’s backing off because he’s learned that the bullying attitude he had in the campaign won’t work once he’s in office.’’

After Trump passed 270 electoral votes on Election Night, David Bugh of Lancaster, Ohio, a pastor and small business owner, says he was afraid. But given signs of what he calls Trump’s “moderation,’’ says “I’m a little less pessimistic now.’’

Even a diehard Never-Trumper like Democrat Rich Langan of Ashwaubenon, Wis., a retired police officer, says he’s trying to keep an open mind: “I’ll give him six months.’’

As for the Trump supporters.

Despite some fiery campaign rhetoric, “once he’s in office he’ll soften up on pretty much everything,’’ says Barry Fixler, who last year opened his own local Trump headquarters in Bardonia, N.Y.

And that’s fine with Fixler, a jeweler. “In his heart, Trump loves people. He won’t do anything to drastically affect people,’’ such as non-criminal illegal immigrants. “He’s not going to throw out children (of illegal immigrants). He’s just going after the criminals and ISIS.’’

Many Trump voters say their man’s opponents were spooked by his campaign promises because they didn’t understand how he works.

Gene Dunn is a longtime Trump admirer who took his son out of school to attend Trump’s presidential campaign announcement at Trump Tower. Trump’s campaign promises were “standard The Art of the Deal practice,’’ he says, referring to Trump’s 1987 best seller. “Asking for the whole enchilada, but settling for what’s reasonable. And all sides can claim victory.’’

A. D. Amar, an Indian immigrant and business professor who lives in Warren, N.J., agrees that many of Trump’s campaign promises were really opening gambits: “That is Trump’s style as a negotiator. He throws the extreme negative outcome at his opponents. This brings them to the table, and then whatever they get after the negotiation is better than what Trump originally threw at them.’’

Here’s how President-elect Trump has been rewriting candidate Trump:

Some elements of the Affordable Care Act, which he’d promised to repeal and replace, are worth keeping. He cited provisions requiring coverage of pre-existing medical conditions and allowing children to remain on parents’ plans until they turn 26. "I like those very much," Trump told The Wall Street Journal.
Some illegal immigrants are “terrific people,” and his priorities are 1) securing the border and 2) deporting criminals. The number of all illegal immigrants is around 11 million; criminals in that group number anywhere between 800,000 and several million. 
Some sections of the “big beautiful wall’’ he’s vowed to build along the border might actually look more like fencing.
If and when Americans try to pin candidate Trump’s promises to President Trump, they will have their work cut out for them, says John Baick, who teaches American political history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass.

One problem is sheer volume – the “many, many promises made on the campaign trail,’’ says Baick. “There is almost certainly no candidate who has produced more verbiage, in person and in digital form, than Donald Trump.’’

Another is the lack of specifics. Trump, Baick says, “can claim that he has kept many simply by taking symbolic steps.’’ For instance, it may be enough if Trump starts to build the wall, just as John F. Kennedy gets credit for starting a man-on-the-moon program that was not scheduled for completion until after what would have been his second term.

In defeating the GOP establishment in the primaries and Clinton in the general election, Trump may already have kept his biggest, most emotional promise to supporters, McGlennon says: “As long as they feel he’ll bring an end to business as usual in Washington, they’ll worry about the details later on.’’

But there will be a later on.

McGlennon says that while there’s merit to the idea that Trump spoke to his supporters in ways that should not be taken literally, “The question is how long the public will be satisfied with that. At some point people want specifics. Is Trump disciplined enough to provide them?’’


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