Steve Chapman

That brings up another reason not to take the partisan rhetoric too seriously. Candidates may vow to take quick action on major issues, somehow forgetting that our system is designed expressly to prevent quick action on major issues.

The GOP takeover of the House is far more useful as a brake than a steering wheel. The new majority can stop Obama from advancing new proposals by voting them down. But it can't force him to accept Republican ones.

Besides, history confirms, a lot of the promises will soon be forgotten. Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 partly on the appeal of a proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms. It failed.

They said they would abolish three Cabinet departments. Each is still standing. A constitutional amendment to authorize "voluntary" school prayer never came close to passing the House.

The consistent failure to keep their word is not unique to Republicans. In 2006, Democrats swept to victory resolved to end the war in Iraq. Didn't happen. They promised to abolish earmarks -- only to approve more than 9,000 last year alone. They were going to rein in deficits so "our children and grandchildren are not saddled with mountains of debt." That was a couple of Everests ago.

Politicians make promises like these because they are big and vivid. But the bigger the goal, the harder it is to reach. That's even more true when power is divided between a Democratic president and Senate and a Republican House. The things that are plausible, on the other hand, are usually not so exciting.

In campaigns, anything is possible, and on Election Day, a lot can change in a hurry. Afterward, not so much.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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