Promises, promises: We all know pols’ old habits die hard

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Like Mom and apple pie, change is now a sacred cow. The public demands it, so the pols embrace it. President Bush is changing our Iraq policy. New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promises Democrats will deliver ethics reform. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer promises to change everything in Albany except the weather.

All of which prompts my first prediction for 2007: We’re going to be disappointed.

Hold on – don’t accuse me of being a cynic. I’m what one wag calls a “premature realist.”

The changes we’re expecting are not what we’re going to get. Some promises will be broken. Some will be kept in the letter – a legalistic parsing of the promise – but not in the spirit the public expects. Only a very few will make a noticeable difference.

None of this means the pols are bad people. It’s just that they have the bad habit of telling us what we want to hear. Telling us the truth would be inconvenient for them and us. Better we should all pretend to believe the big lie – that we are on the cusp of sweeping change in government and that, as a result, we’ll all be on easy street. Pigs might even fly.

If the pols were honest, they would warn us not to expect too much. Bush, for example, would have to concede that Iraq is looking more and more like a lost cause. His best and brightest, he would tell us, can’t figure out either how to impose peace or get the hell out. There may be no “way forward,” his placeholder phrase, The Decider would say when he finally decides.

Pols who favor big change, but who also want to be honest about the obstacles, would say there are good reasons why things are as they are. One reason is that most people, at least most important people, want them this way. Elections and opinion polls are great for expressing outrage. But the day-to-day grind of government is a more complete expression of who we are and what we want. The competing agendas and ambitions, the best and worst of human nature, get pureed into a glop of compromises. Slowly the glop moves, never equally spreading its benefits and pains. We have the government we deserve.

Nancy Pelosi proves the point, promising big change while perpetuating the problems. Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, is turning her rise into a three-day party, with one event a fund-raising concert where tickets cost $1,000. That’s Congress’ biggest problem – selling access. And Pelosi begins her term by hanging out a “For Sale” sign.

Even her promise to create an independent ethics panel faces opposition in her own party. Old-line members who spent years waiting their turn at the trough, and are now ready to chow down, are not eager to be judged by unbought outsiders. The old way of doing business is fine with them, as long as they get to eat first.

The last truth pols will tell us is that government has its limits. A loved one gets sick, an errant child, a bad neighbor, frustrations and fate – they tower over the grandest promises of reform.

Spitzer missed a chance to tell us that truth in his inauguration speech. New York’s new governor promised not just change, but divine intervention. Sayeth He: “No one any longer believes in government as a heavy hand that can cure all our ills, but rather we see it as a lean and responsive force that can make possible the pursuit of prosperity and opportunity for all – by softening life’s blows, leveling its playing field and making possible the pursuit of happiness that is our God-given right.”

Whoopee – but why did he promise only that we could pursue happiness? I want a government that actually delivers happiness. And not just for a while. Promise me eternal delight and you have my vote.

I promise.

Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10001; e-mail: Mgoodwinedit.nydailynews.com.

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