In general, American politicians keep about two thirds of their promises, or at least make a good-faith effort to keep them.
That’s not great, but it’s not terrible. It’s your flaky friend, but not your flakiest friend; it’s an overworked coworker but not the one who sleeps through meetings and gets high on cigarette breaks.
However, this estimate is of ordinary politicians—that is, political figures embedded in existing political movements, and who abide by ordinary political discourse norms. And so during the election, there was a lively debate about Donald Trump. Was he likely to be more reliable than an ordinary politician, or less? And what was the breakdown likely to be? Which of Trump’s extraordinary statements was a reliable statement of intent, and which was mere bluster or nonsense?
One of the popular hypothesis during the election was that Trump’s commitments should be taken “seriously, not literally“. In other words, Trump was accurately stating his overall commitments, but he was blustering or fantasizing about his concrete plans. The most salient example was the wall. Under this model, wall talk was Trump’s way of emphasizing his overall commitment to reduced immigration, but did not entail a concrete plan (pun intended) to build an actual wall. And for a while, this seemed like a plausible way to understand Trump, one that even his supporters sometimes put forward.
With the first few months of the Trump Administration under our belt, we can clearly see that “seriously, not literally” was a fatally flawed attempt to predict Trump’s actions. Proposals like the Muslim ban and border wall proceeded apace; while Trump’s promises to provide health insurance to all are, to put it lightly, not reflected in his actions.
Therefore, I’ve formulated an alternate hypothesis, which predicts which stated commitments Trump will act on: if he talks about it of his own accord, he means all of it. If he doesn’t, it’s bullshit.
Trump talked an awful lot about the wall and the ban during the campaign; and sure enough, it turned out he was serious both about the general principle and about the practical points he made. Even the compromise on “Mexico paying for it” is a fairly ordinary political compromise—”I said we’d get X done, and pay for it with Y, but if we can’t pay for it with Y, we’ll still find the money.”
On the other hand, Trump’s remarks about healthcare were throwaway lines in response to questions. When he gave his own speeches, he was clear about his intent to repeal the ACA, but shockingly vague about its replacement; only when pressed by journalists did he offer the commitments—universal coverage, lower premiums, etc.—that he has so cravenly abandoned.
The thing about this model is, it’s remarkably ordinary. Any one of us has at least felt the temptation to lie in this way. You talk about the things you care about; when someone asks you a bunch of pushy questions, you come up with something that they’ll like and hope that it chases them away. Why not?
It’s also the strategy of a lazy man. During the campaign, Trump did not have a health insurance plan, and his team did not have one. He didn’t have a foreign policy plan—his signature idea in the fight on ISIS was to insist that someone else come up with a plan for him. And rather than come up with a plan in either case, Trump simply punted; making vague assurances that would satisfy his audience of the moment.
We shouldn’t be surprised that these vague assurances do not represent actual commitments. We should not be surprised when our fundamentally lazy and dishonest President does not act to honor them.