Decision In the Face Of Deception

A couple of years ago, shortly before the 2008 elections, some people were making fun of undecided voters for being stupid: How could anyone not tell the difference between Barack Obama or John McCain after 20 months of campaigning? How could anyone not know which one they thought would make a better president?

At the time, I wrote a defense of undecided voters premised on the idea that the occupant of the White House makes little practical difference in the lives of most people. And even to the extent the right president would make a difference, I argued, an individual voter has almost no effect on the election result, so their time would be better spent improving their lives more directly. I also argued that neither the news media nor the campaigns make it easy to figure out where the candidates stand on the issues that many people care about.

In retrospect, I probably should have emphasized that last point more. In particular, I should have pointed out that politicians routinely say things during the campaign that they promptly forget about once they are in power. Consider presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2007:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

…History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

And now that same guy has just ordered our military to carry out airstrikes into Libya without obtaining Congressional approval.

Defenders of Obama’s actions could probably argue that this is in response to a U.N. resolution and that Congress has control over all the treaties and laws that control the United States’ relationship with the U.N., so therefore Congress has technically given it’s approval. That argument may even be correct. But is that really what anyone thought he meant when he said it? I don’t think so.

Here’s another Obama quote from that same interview:

5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?

No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.

Obama has backed so far away from that position that last year he ordered the assassination of an American citizen without a trial. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the reasons we’re attacking Libya because Gaddafi was killing his own people?

Suppose that back when Obama was elected, I had written a blog post in which I predicted that,

If you were an Obama supporter back then and read those predictions, wouldn’t you have accused me of being an anti-Obama nutcase? I know I would have thought those predictions were nutty.

It’s not just Obama, of course. George Bush, from the party of smaller government, presided over an enormous increase in the size of government.

Politicians are masters of deception. They’re experts at saying something that carries a strong implication without actually committing themselves to a course of action or limiting their future actions. And in the event they do commit themselves in a statement, they’re experts at re-explaining what they really meant, or explaining why the current situation is special and their earlier statements don’t apply. Or sometimes they just lie to us.

No wonder so many people were undecided between Obama and McCain. Once they factored in the lies and deception, they couldn’t tell what either of them would do in office.

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