Samuelson: Injecting Truth Serum into Politicians

It's been a blast, this presidential campaign. A great story, full of drama. But no one should think it's been honest. With the possible exception of Iraq—a matter that compels candidates to face real issues—the campaign has been an exercise in mass merchandising. Candidates make alluring promises (to "fix the economy," "defeat special interests" or "achieve energy independence") and offer freebies to voters (more tax cuts, health care, college aid). Complete the sale: That's the point.

There's a vast gap between the country's problems and the candidates' agendas and rhetoric. The candidates dissemble because they believe that Americans don't want the truth. It would be too upsetting.

They're probably right. Let's imagine what a candidate inoculated with truth serum might say. This gauges the distance between what Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain are saying and what they should be saying. Here's the abbreviated stump speech:

Of course, our hapless candidate would be dismissed as misinformed, offensive, possibly racist and, of course, unelectable. People say they value candor, but in practice they don't. Almost all our major national problems require patience: the capacity to take somewhat painful actions now to avoid greater future pain. In an ideal world, elections would help move public opinion toward such policies.

But that doesn't happen. Politics is mostly about immediate gratification—about offering up convenient scapegoats and instant solutions for voters' complaints, even if the villains and promises are often false. We in the media bless this process by treating much of the self-serving rhetoric with undeserved seriousness. Is it any wonder that our genuine problems persist year after year and, in the end, foster public cynicism?