When the Republicans, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, offered America a “Contract” in 1994, much of the language was crafted with what must be understood as brilliance.The commitment included promises to pass a number of reforms of the way the House of Representatives conducted its business, promises soon-to-be Speaker Gingrich knew he could fulfill if Republicans won because their fulfillment would depend exclusively on things within Republican control (like the votes of his party caucus on the first day of their new majority).
The commitment also included a set of legislative proposals. The real brilliance of the contract is evident in the promise made about these bills, because here, too, Gingrich and his advisors made certain that they could deliver on the promises they made . . . not a simple matter when dealing with the process by which a bill becomes law under our system of separation of powers.
The contract did not promise that these proposals would become law. Instead, the contract promised to bring the bills to the floor, “each to be given full and open debate, each to be given a clear and fair vote.” To bring them to a vote, of course, is not the same thing as bringing them to fruition.While the new Republican majority did, in fact, pass all but one of these measures out of the House, such a remarkable achievement was not necessary for the promise of the contract to be fulfilled. They all could have gone down in flames on the House floor, and the new Republican majority still would have kept its promise.
Promise-making is serious business, in personal life and in politics. A promise is an unconditional guarantee that something will be done.Failure to fulfill a promise is . . . well, a failure. It may be a failure the recipient of the promise readily forgives (like the student who promised to attend the next session of my class, and then failed to show up because her car had been hit by a drunk driver and she was in a coma). Or it may be a failure that is not forgiven. Either way, it is a failure. And either way, because that failure leads to some damage to the trust in the relationship, forgiveness must be sought, empowering the promise-receiver to decide whether or not, and under what conditions, the relationship persists with a degree of mutual trust.
Which is why I rarely make promises and only after careful reflection on the degree to which I can, in fact, guarantee that I will fulfill that promise.
Which also is why leaders, especially elected leaders, should be wary of facile promises that make great sound bites but often come back to bite those who make them.
President Obama is struggling with the consequences of just such a facile promise, as anyone attuned to politics in this country has been told over and over again in the last couple of weeks. “If you like your [health insurance] plan, you can keep it,” was a facile response to what often were factually inaccurate claims about the Affordable Care Act. And it is clear that it was a foolish, if not flatly dishonest, thing to say. Because, in the end, the president could not guarantee that the promise would be kept. Insurance companies had power here that the president had not sought to take away.
Efforts to parse the statement to make the cancellation notices being received by millions of Americans seem somehow consistent with the promise are, politically, irrelevant. Staunch supporters of the Affordable Care Act and/or the president may be satisfied, and staunch critics obviously will be enraged. Nothing new there, just more heat.
But for those who were willing to risk trusting the president and the administration in the midst of what must be understood as massive change in the way health care will be paid for and, ultimately, delivered in this country, uncertain but hopeful that their trust would be well-placed, such deep linguistic analysis misses the point.
It doesn’t matter how the promise can be interpreted. It matters how it was interpreted.
Unarguably, it was understood as a promise that . . . well, if you liked your plan, you could keep it.
For millions of Americans, that promise has been broken. For many millions more, the trust they have risked placing in this important reform effort has been seriously strained.
Repairing that damage in the relationship between our president and our people requires the president not only to say “I am sorry.” It requires a straightforward acknowledgement, without nuance, that the promise should never have been made.
And then . . . the administration will have to do what it can to make things right while they wait to see whether they will be forgiven.