MINOT, N.D. — Going by the promises currently being made by candidates for U.S. president, you’d think our federal government was an omnipotent machine, and politics merely the apparatus through which we aim it at problems.

There seems to be no upper limit on what national candidates will promise they can accomplish.

“Bernie Sanders promises that if he is elected, no one will ever have to pay college tuition for public colleges or universities ever again,” National Review columnist Jim Geraghty wrote recently by way of listing some of these pledges.

“Kamala Harris promises that if she is elected, the average teacher in America would receive a $13,500-per-year raise. Elizabeth Warren promises that if she is elected, no American parents would ever pay more than 7 percent of their income on childcare. Julian Castro promises that if he is elected, he will create 10 million new jobs in the ‘clean energy economy.’ Pete Buttigieg promises that he will cut the number of incarcerated Americans in half without any increase in crime. Andrew Yang says that if he is elected, all citizens over age 18 will get $1,000 per month from the government, forever. And Joe Biden, the supposed sensible centrist in the Democratic primary, promises that if elected, he will cure cancer.”

Before my left wing readers get upset, let me point out that Republican President Donald Trump was the “I alone can fix it” guy who promised that trade wars were easy to win and that Mexico would pay to build a border wall.

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The politicians love making wild promises, and they do it because it works. The voting public eats it up, believing that their candidate really will deliver on the things they promised on the campaign trail. Every two years we elect politicians who ascend to the various seats of power in government and inevitably let us down because they overpromise and under-deliver.

And then we do the whole thing all over again.


It speaks to gross overestimation of the competency of government.

I say that not to perpetuate any of the tired shibboleths about lazy, incompetent bureaucrats. Those people exist, to be sure, but in the aggregate those are unfair caricatures. Most people who work in government genuinely want to do a good job.

It’s just that they’re often tasked implementing the impossible promises made by politicians, a task that over the course of a career has got to feel downright sisyphean.

A very large part of American political discourse has been dedicated to explaining how angry the modern electorate has become.

I would offer that a driving force behind it is that voters have been led to believe their government can do things it simply cannot.

The honest thing to do would be to admit to the limitations of government, to acknowledge that there are some problems it simply cannot solve.

The problem is “let’s do less,” as much as I would like it, probably isn’t a winning campaign slogan.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.