There is a good article in the New York Times today, as part of their "If Elected..." series, that tries valiantly to add up the candidates' taxing and spending promises with an emphasis on their deficit implications. As a budget policy analyst, I know how tough such a task is during an election campaign, and empathize with any reporter who attempts to do so.
What I try to keep remembering to tell members of the media as I go through the numbers with them, is that the numbers are certain to change, and the candidates and their advisors know that, but what really matters is the commitment to fiscal responsibility once in office and what flexibility they have left themselves with, after the campaign ends, to alter their plans.
Sometimes plans change because campaigns are two-year long processes, and the plans a candidate designed at the beginning, might no longer be what can be written into legislation and enacted once the campaign ends. I think that has clearly happened in the last couple months with the crisis in the financial markets.
Unfortunately, more often than not, there is a tendency during campaigns to pile promises upon promises in a way that makes the plans themselves unrealistic (as we discuss in this issue brief about campaign policy baselines). This is why we need to continually encourage candidates to be honest and transparent about details and how their numbers add up.
More importantly, however, is that whatever specifics are in their plans, the candidates should try and avoid "read my lips" moments when stumping, so that they have at least some political flexibility if and when the time comes that they cannot fully fulfill a portion of their campaign agenda once governing.