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To know what President Clinton will really do, listen to what she says

Nobody believes it, but politicians mostly keep their promises.

Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Las Vegas Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

There is probably no politician in American history whose dealings have been as extensively researched, investigated, FOIAed, subpoenaed, hacked, and WikiLeaked as Hillary Clinton. Despite this, many people regard her as sphinx-like and unknowable — yearning for even more secret documents to reveal what she really thinks and what she will really do as president.

Academic research on politicians and promises suggests a simpler method: Check her campaign website.

It features a fairly extensive issues section that offers a reasonably detailed blueprint for action on dozens of different issues. Combining the information contained there with a little bit of common sense about political plausibility — she promised to propose a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted — gives you a decent sense of what the Clinton administration would look like. What’s more, the very comprehensive and detailed nature of Clinton’s plans tells us that areas on which she’s remained vague aren’t an accident. She has the staff and has put in the time to put forward detailed policies in the areas where she wants to.

The areas where she has not done so are the areas where she wants to retain strategic flexibility to strike deals — deals her base may not love.

All this follows from one of the most overwhelming scholarly conclusions that approximately zero normal people believe: Politicians make good-faith efforts to enact their campaign promises, and they are generally pretty good at getting the job done.

Politicians keep most of their promises

Political campaigns are full of big public pledges, and academic research indicates that those pledges are mostly kept. They are mostly kept by American presidents, mostly kept by members of Congress, and mostly kept by foreign politicians, too:

  • In 1984, political scientist Michael Krukones studied presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter and found that American presidents kept about 75 percent of their campaign promises.
  • Follow-up research from Colleen Shogan studied Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and found that in their first terms, the two presidents were very successful at getting their major campaign promises enacted, although they struggled in later years.
  • Members of Congress who mention issues during their campaigns are more likely to introduce bills related to those issues once they're elected, Tracy Sulkin found when she studied congressional campaigns from 1998 through 2002.
  • An overview of 21 studies of campaign promises from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Greece found that on average, political parties fulfilled 67 percent of their promises.
  • PolitiFact finds that Barack Obama has fulfilled his campaign promises either completely (45 percent) or partially (26 percent) in the vast majority of cases.

Beyond those facts, it’s important to recognize that politicians are constrained from delivering on their promises by the objective political and institutional reality. PolitiFact rather harshly throws everything Obama said he would do but didn’t deliver on into a “promises broken” bucket, even though in the majority of instances the fact that the promise has not been fulfilled can be laid at the feet of Congress rather than the White House.

It’s true, for example, that Obama has not ended oil and gas loopholes in the tax code, created a national infrastructure bank, or expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act. But he has proposed legislation to do all of those things; it simply died in Congress.

Similarly, while it’s true that Obama did not sign the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier for workers to form a labor union, no such legislation came close to passing at any time during his administration. Obama has instead appointed National Labor Relations Board members who, as Timothy Noah and Brian Mahoney wrote for Politico in a recap of his labor policies, “have issued a string of rulings that favor unions,” leading to the conclusion that “Obama may end up doing more for the struggling labor movement than any president in three decades.”

In other words, Clinton’s promises tell us a lot about what will happen if she wins the election, and they tell us even more about what she will try to do.

Politics happens in public

Bruce Wayne is not a billionaire playboy who dresses up in a bat costume and beats up criminals for fun. He’s a hardcore vigilante deeply traumatized by the death of his parents who’s created a billionaire playboy persona named “Bruce Wayne” to serve as a frontman for the financial machinations that make Batman’s activities viable.

By the same token, when you dedicate your life to the pursuit of political office, the things you do in that role are the real you.

This is particularly true of presidents, because United States government is enormous. There are more than 4,000 political appointees in the executive branch and many career public servants doing important policy work. The president cannot oversee an operation of that size based on private conversations about what he “really” wants any more than he can privately convey his “real” opinion to the thousands of congressional staffers whose work also crucially impacts his legacy.

Publicly stated policy positions are not the only means through which the president’s ideas are conveyed to the executive branch, but they are the simplest, broadest, and most effective means of doing so. The publicly stated agenda is also a powerful tool in any kind of interagency dialogue or collaborative meeting. Anyone can say they have secret information from the Oval Office dictating what the policy “really” is, but only a handful of people would be remotely credible in trying to pull it off.

Pointing to the alignment of your proposed course of action with a clear public commitment, by contrast, is a pretty good argument: “We’re doing this because it’s what we said we were going to do” helps bring career staffers along, and it’s a good explanation to give to curious reporters.

What’s more, if hostile interest groups don’t like what you’re doing, you can always privately explain to them that you sympathize with what they’re saying, and on the merits can see it from their point of view, but politically speaking we have to follow through with the pledge; maybe we can help you out in the future. For a politician, private talk — with donors, journalists, interest groups, members of Congress, etc. — is cheap talk with no accountability. It’s public pledges that are valuable.

Watch what Clinton says carefully

Donald Trump has been the big story of 2016, with his every utterance covered and scrutinized. Yet at this point, he is overwhelmingly likely to lose. Coverage of Clinton, meanwhile, has focused overwhelmingly on the tantalizing prospects of secret revelations from various email dumps. The idea of simply covering what she says strikes many as naive, credulous, and almost propagandistic. Everyone knows candidates lie, after all.

The most famous example of this suspicion might be George H.W. Bush’s pledge to tell Congress, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Likewise, Barack Obama promised a health care law that would let you keep your existing insurance plan if you liked it.

Candidates breaking their promises really does happen. But presidents make hundreds of campaign pledges. The fact that a handful of reversals stand out over a period of decades is a reminder that in general presidents mostly set out to try to do what they said they were going to do.

In this polarized era, a GOP House is likely to be a real constraint that makes it difficult for Clinton to deliver on her pledges of universal pre-K or tuition-free college for middle-class students. But if Democrats do win Congress, that will be on the agenda, and there’s more besides:

It's impossible to guarantee that all of this will come to pass if she wins, but history suggests that it probably will — particularly if she has a sympathetic Congress on her side. It also suggests that pointed ambiguities in her stated agenda are worth paying attention to. The financing mechanism for her infrastructure plan, for example, is a totally unspecific ‘‘business tax reform’’ whose very lack of detail suggests a willingness to go along with a tax shenanigan the Obama administration been resisting.

The inside story of exactly how this all came to be the stated agenda is fascinating, and our understanding of that story will continue to grow throughout the years. But if you’re interested in concrete details about the likely future course of American policy, you should spend some time over the next few weeks familiarizing yourself with Clinton’s stated agenda — or, even better, Vox’s coverage of it! — in terms of both executive actions she probably will enact and less likely notions, like a $30 billion plan to help ailing “coal country” economies that she would need congressional assistance to pull off.

The best-kept secret in politics is that presidents mostly do what they say they’ll do — so paying attention to what the woman who is very likely to become president says she’ll do is worth your time.