Last month’s vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has been touted as a potentially defining moment in not only UK politics but also across the world. There are those who say that the UK’s departure from the EU means indefinite stagnation, job loss, and poor growth for the British economy. Others have predicted that the UK itself will dissolve over disagreement between English voters and their Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish counterparts about whether to remain in the EU. Some have even argued that the vote portends an end to the European project as a whole, given that other EU countries such as France, Italy, and the Netherlands might force their own popular referendums on whether to remain part of the great liberal, European legacy of World War Two. Even more broadly, some have linked Brexit’s narrow victory with the fortunes of Donald Trump, suggesting that events in the UK offer predictive power about the fleeting nature of Hillary Clinton’s temporary lead in the polls. Some of these grand pronouncements may yet prove true, although the predictions of doom and gloom appear to be overstated.
If there is one clear lesson for America from the British referendum, however, it is not that isolationist and xenophobic views are a rising political force. Rather, Brexit’s clearest instruction for politicians in the United States is that the costs of a campaign based on deceitful sloganeering are not outweighed by momentary victory. Right-wing politics divorced from fact-based analysis, both abroad and here in the United States, must eventually confront reality when its undeliverable promises are put to the test. There are real consequences for political movements that campaign on fantasy.
Promises do, in fact, matter. Contrary to the popular mythology that politicians spout endless lies while campaigning only to sell out to special interests the moment they take office, politicians are heavily constrained by the promises they make on the campaign trail. This is actually fairly intuitive. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote four years ago in a good summation of the research to that point: “politicians are constantly aware that what they do in Washington will have to be explained to their constituents, and that it will have to be explained in terms of their original promises.” Bernstein also noted that candidates and the people who work for them likely believe most of the things they advocate during their campaigns. Indeed, George W. Bush pushed through the massive tax cuts, education reform, and other conservative priorities that he campaigned on, while Barack Obama has, by one account, made good on 70% of the policy promises he articulated in 2008 and 2012 (with another 22% stymied by Republicans in congress). High-profile exceptions prove the rule. George H.W. Bush’s broken promise at the 1988 Republican National Convention not to raise taxes led to a conservative backlash that likely hurt his reelection chances.
For this reason, it is important that politicians can actually deliver on the promises that they make. Or at the very least, it is important that politicians are capable of pushing actual bills based on the platitudes they espoused during the election. It’s true that Obama has thus far failed to close Guantanamo Bay as he very publicly promised during both of his campaigns for the presidency. But at least that promise could actually be translated into a real piece of legislation capable of congressional action, and at least Obama actively pushed for it while in office. Since Bush boarded Executive One and waved goodbye to the White House on January 20, 2009, however, Republicans—freed from the responsibility of actually governing the country—have failed to connect their outsized rhetoric to actual, workable policies capable of enactment were they ever supported by the president in power.
For the most part, Republicans’ opposition to President Obama’s agenda early in his tenure did not immediately force them into impossible situations. Their viciously negative rhetoric about the President did, however, put them in a difficult bind. With few exceptions, congressional Republicans lined up in force against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—the President’s fiscal stimulus bill combining infrastructure spending and tax cuts intended to lift the economy out of recession. Republican legislators unanimously opposed the Affordable Care Act, and failed to make good on their pledge to present their own plan for health reform. This strategy held few consequences for the 2010 midterm, though, since the GOP was content simply to be the party of “no.” Democrats had large majorities in both houses of congress and could pass much of the legislation that needed to pass—most notably the stimulus, which prevented a deepening of the recession.
The problems arose once Republicans took back control of both the House and Senate following the election and had to actually present a vision for the country. In their 2010 campaigns, Republicans were now committed to arguing that Obama’s approach to every problem was disastrous, even though many of Obama’s individual accomplishments were popular. So Republicans’ solution was to have it both ways: to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, without increasing the number of uninsured or rescinding the law’s ban on discrimination against those with preexisting conditions. Of course, it was thoroughly impossible to obtain the benefits of the law—guaranteed issue and community rating—without the mandate and tax funded subsidies Republicans detested. There was no workable Republican alternative; the real “conservative” position, if they were honest about it, was the politically unpopular status quo. Republicans preferred higher rates of uninsured citizens to an insurance mandate and higher upper income taxes. House Republicans have always been on the verge of releasing a “replace” plan, only to delay time and again lest they be forced to choose between rhetoric and reality.
This sleight of hand expanded into procedural tactics as well. Republicans used the threat of a debt ceiling default and a government shutdown to try to obtain far-fetched policy goals such as draconian spending cuts and the defunding of health reform. Neither the threat nor the goal were realistic outcomes. The kind of spending cuts Republicans allegedly sought would cripple the economy, and in any event could not be achieved without raising revenue, cutting Social Security and Medicare, cutting defense, or using a combination thereof. Meanwhile, actually allowing the United States to default on its debt would have been truly catastrophic for the world economy. The Republican response to these facts was simply to deny and dissemble. Then-House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan pretended that tax cuts could pay for themselves and that privatizing Medicare would magically result in slowing the growth of health care costs. At the same time, a slew of House and Senate Republicans insisted that a U.S. debt default was no big deal.
All of this infected the party’s platform when it came time to put together an alternative for the country in 2012. Whereas congressional Republicans had the luxury of playing fast and loose with the facts while Obama was in the White House, Mitt Romney had the affirmative obligation of presenting a workable, governing agenda different from Obama’s. Disturbingly, he mostly failed to do so. Outside of his criticisms of the Obama administration, the Romney campaign released policy proposals that independent experts agreed were nonsense. On health reform, Romney endorsed Ryan’s falsehoods about privatizing Medicare and the party’s imaginary plan for replacing “Obamacare” with a law that kept the politically popular parts without the unpopular supporting parts. On the economy, Romney fudged the numbers and pretended he could create millions of jobs based on thinly supported claims. Most gallingly, Romney pushed a mythical tax plan that would lower taxes and close the budget deficit without eliminating the largest and most popular deductions. The Romney campaign defended this fanciful proposal by suggesting that he would close various tax loopholes and deductions. Of course, it wouldn’t specify which loopholes and deductions the plan would eliminate, and independent tax groups found that there were not enough of such provisions to raise the revenue necessary to offset the massive cuts for wealthy Americans.
This fact-free campaigning was not limited to Romney. As Jonathan Cohn observed at the time, with Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s tax plan particularly drawing Cohn’s ire, “transparently unworkable and unrealistic” policy proposals were endemic within the GOP in 2012. The reason? “With some notable and laudable exceptions,” Cohn wrote, “conservative intellectuals don’t hold Republicans to exacting standards on policy proposals. And conservative movement voters certainly don’t seem to demand candidates put forward workable policy details.” Needless to say, the outlandish and unreasonable campaign pledges have only gotten more egregious during 2016, from Ben Carson’s 10% tithing-based tax plan, to Jeb Bush’s empty 4% growth pledge, to all of the candidates’ laughably simplistic and uninformed thoughts on combating terrorism, to a certain orange-faced charlatan’s entire platform.
It’s important to note that this is not always the way opposition parties act. In 2007, after sweeping control of both houses of Congress, Democrats passed a minimum wage increase bill and other priorities based on their “six for ‘06” platform during that preceding midterm elections. As Cohn noted in his piece, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama all released detailed health care plans, with realistic assumptions backed by economic and health policy experts, in 2008. It was a variation of these very plans that ultimately became the Affordable Care Act. It’s what allowed Obama to generally satisfy his supporters when his hypothetical plans were capable of becoming law.
Yet, Republicans are in no position to do that should they win a national election. The party has not yet faced the consequences of promising the impossible.
Herein lies the true lesson of Brexit: winning is the easy part. The case for “Leave” was also based on a series of half-truths and outright falsehoods. Then a funny thing happened: the campaign won. Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would resign in October in the face of his “Remain” campaign’s defeat. Meanwhile, the main opposition party leader, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, is facing an intraparty revolt from Labor MPs upset over his lackluster campaigning for “Remain.” All the forces were in place for “Leave” supporters to take control of the government and effectuate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Yet, already leaders of the “Leave” forces have substantially walked back their soaring promises and blanched at the stark consequences of their policies after only days earlier dismissing such critiques as leftist fearmongering. United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage couldn’t wait more than a day after the referendum to admit that it was “a mistake” for the “Leave” campaign to promise that exiting the EU would mean £350 million more a week for the country’s National Health Service. That particular claim had been repeatedly debunked in the lead-up to the vote, though Farage and former London Mayor Boris Johnson ignored and dismissed the criticism. Other “Leave” proponents also quickly disavowed their previous claims that money paid to the EU could be rerouted to the NHS. Meanwhile, leading Brexit proponents, such as EU Parliament member Daniel Hannan, also backtracked from the immigration claims that he, Farage, and others repeatedly made in support of withdrawal. “Leave’s” advertisements and rhetoric promised that voting to leave the EU would drastically reduce immigration and allow the UK to control its borders. In fact, should the UK wish to remain in the EU’s “single market”—as even the leading “Leave” advocates want—the country will have to accede to many of the EU’s immigration policies anyway. Now victorious, Johnson and others have suggested that net immigration may remain largely unchanged.
The political turmoil roiling Britain may not entirely be the product of these false promises, but much of it is. Previously thought to be the leading Tory to replace Cameron, Johnson announced that he would not seek the prime-ministership, after his longtime ally Michael Gove undercut him and announced his own candidacy. Johnson’s severely undermined credibility in the wake of his embarrassing retreat from many of Brexit’s selling points may have had a large part in these twin decisions. Regardless, Johnson, Gove, Farage, and the rest of the “Leave” contingent are dealing with the consequences of ill-gotten success. Having won, reality has finally set in.
For the Republican Party here in the States, the moral of this story should be sobering. The last eight years of frivolity will significantly hamper their ability to achieve actual policy victories should they ever take power. Maybe Republicans have resigned themselves to being the out-party indefinitely given the minority positions their supporters’ delusions force them to hold. It certainly does not seem like they will be taking the White House this year. But Republican victory in a future presidential election is an inevitability as long as they remain one of America’s two major political parties. When they do win, their current strategy of promising the impossible has dangerous consequences for any sustained success. A future Republican president will not be able to repeal Obamacare and continue its benefits, tear up the Iran nuclear accord and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons while maintaining global sanctions, or slash taxes while reducing the deficit. For that matter, no future president can successfully build a massive wall on the southern border or renegotiate every trade deal to stop the tide of globalization. The incoming administration will have to move somewhat towards reality. What will conservative voters think then? How will partisans already feeling betrayed by a national party unable to achieve its unrealistic goals react? Winning a presidential election may actually prevent Republicans from doing so again.