On credibility

We've been hearing a great deal about credibility lately. There are currently almost 1.5 million hits on Google for +bush-administration +credibility +2007. Virtually all the articles say the same thing, that the administration's credibility is either eroding or is already at floor; there are differences about the topic, though. Left wingers focus mostly on the war and torture (along with quite a few other matters), while right-wingers mostly focus on immigration. But they all agree that the Bush administration has a credibility problem.

We also hear about the credibility of Congress. A lot of people voted for Democrats so they would end the war. However, the war is still going strong, facilitated by legislation passed by a Democratically led Congress.

What interests me, however, is that there are actually two different issues that tend to get lumped under the credibility rubric: truthfulness and delivery of what was promised.

Under the law, intentions are everything. If you promise something in good faith but cannot deliver because of circumstances that you cannot control and that you couldn't reasonably have been expected to know about, then you are considered blameless. A somewhat similar situation obtains in politics.

If a political leader promises something and doesn't fulfil the promise, there are a couple of possible consequences.

  • Everyone knows that it was just campaign rhetoric ("no child left behind"), no one expected it to be fulfilled literally. In this case, no credibility is lost unless the politician's behavior goes flatly against the entire flow of the campaign. Even then this is a gray area, and it depends in large part on the economy.
  • The individual leader makes a strong attempt to fulfill the promise, but is blocked by other politicians or other factors. This is more serious. No one doubts that the individual told the truth when he made the promise initially, but he still loses credibility in terms of effectiveness.
This highlights the dichotomy. In order to be credible as a politician, you must be perceived as (1) honest, and (2) effective.

The Bush administration had developed a reputation in left-wing circles as dishonest, and as a result had little credibility. However, for the population at large, it wasn't until Hurricane Katrina, when the administration was exposed as grossly ineffective, that the most serious credibility problems began.

It is also true that there is a kind of osmosis here. If you doubt someone's effectiveness, then it becomes easier to doubt their honesty, and vice-versa. Furthermore, when some people with a given label lose credibility, for either reason or both, then it becomes easier to see other people with the same label as having low credible. This can result in a downward credibility spiral such as we have seen with the Bush administration and Republicans, within the US, and Americans in general, outside the US.

In the domain of politics, it is extremely difficult -- usually impossible -- to rebuild lost credibility. This means that the response we have seen by the Bush administration of ignoring the credibility issue may actually be rational. That is, the credibility game is irreparably lost, so the only thing that matters is (1) helping their contributers, and (2) trying to clean up the future historical record by both actions and secrecy.

In first few years of the Bush administration -- George Lakoff has pointed this out also -- Bush's credibility was actually protected by this "good ol' boy" pseudo redneck shuffle. That is, if Bush didn't carry through on a promise or made some other error, it was put down to ineffectiveness rather than dishonesty. Even in leftwing circles, where his honesty had been questioned for some time, there was debate about whether such and such a piece of wrongdoing was the result of dishonesty or of foolishness. This is in large part why it took Katrina to make most people realize not only that the administration was ineffective, but, by osmosis, that it was also dishonest. In a way, it was only after Katrina that many people finally understood that the Bush administration never had any significant supporting evidence for the contention that Saddam Hussein either had weapons of mass destruction, or that he had any desire or intention of using whatever weapons he did have against the United States.

Well, it's definitely been a strange almost-seven years since the 2000 elections, and the issue of credibility has been a large part of the strangeess.

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