The Perils of Political Pledges

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Tom Williams / Roll Call

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, has a word with Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform on April 14.

The political pledge is a handy weapon in the political advocate’s arsenal. They work. Build a simple statement around a popular principle — keeping taxes low, opposing abortion — and you can pressure skittish politicians to back your cause eternally or risk supporters’ wrath and the dreaded flip-flopper tag. Grover Norquist has built a career around his anti-tax pledge, coaxing nearly every Congressional Republican to co-sign it and declaring jihad against apostates who violate it. Other interest groups are adopting litmus tests as well. In recent weeks, Republican candidates have been pressured to back a slew of pledges on issues ranging from spending cuts to abortion. 

The latest edict to gain steam on the right is the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge. Touted by Congress’s conservative Republican Study Committee, Tea Party kingmakers like Jim DeMint and dozens of Tea Party groups, it asks members of Congress to oppose a debt-limit hike without substantial spending cuts, the imposition of an enforceable cap on spending levels and passage of a balanced-budget amendment. Cut, Cap and Balance has gained momentum in recent days — six presidential candidates have signed it, including Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty — and DeMint has declared that candidates who won’t sign it will disqualify themselves from the derby for his endorsement. Those who haven’t signed it are insulating themselves by issuing even more impossible demands; Michele Bachmann, for example, says she won’t commit because the document doesn’t go far enough. She wants it to defund Obamacare, too — despite the fact that Congress has already taken up such legislation, and time is ticking away before a catastrophic default.

Cut, Cap and Balance isn’t the only petition circulating through the halls of Capitol Hill. Ryan Hecker, a Tea Party activist who helped craft the 10-point Contract From America, told me earlier this week that he and other Tea Partyers would withhold support from candidates who declined to endorse the document. The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy group, is ramping up pressure on candidates who decline to sign its “Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge,” which calls on the commander-in-chief to appoint anti-abortion officials to “relevant” Cabinet posts and executive-branch positions. At least five GOP presidential candidates have signed it; four have not, though Mitt Romney has drafted his own version. Those who don’t face p.r. salvos and shame campaigns. “It is extremely disappointing to see another candidate who is running on a pro-life message refuse to sign the promise to voters that he will act as a leader for our movement if elected to the White House,” SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement after Jon Huntsman declined to join the crowd by the deadline the group imposed.

That’s one perspective. The other is that it’s disappointing when candidates capitulate to the political pressure to conform. Pledges are gimmicks. Their meaning can be distorted. Signing one is the equivalent of voluntarily slipping on a straitjacket; it denies politicians the flexibility needed to meet unforeseen challenges. As Politico reports, plenty of lawmakers who willingly bound their hands are now regretting it, and leery of signing onto any more:

“I think I’ve kind of supported enough pledges,” freshman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told POLITICO. “I’ve restricted myself too much this Congress.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), one of Sarah Palin’s conservative “Mama Grizzlies” who signed Norquist’s anti-tax pledge while running for election last year, said she wouldn’t ink her name to the new pledge. And she’s not certain she’ll sign any others in the future.

“I support the concepts in their pledge, but what matters most is my pledge to uphold the United States Constitution,” Ayotte told POLITICO. “I’m looking very carefully at all pledges because I want to make sure I support the underlying concepts. People who draft pledges tend to define what they mean differently.”

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican Conference chairman, said much the same: “My only pledge is to the United States of America.”

Defying the political pressures of a pledge can also project strength. “For most candidates, certainly the second-tier candidates, they all run right away to sign the pledges figuring that’s the way to ingratiate themselves with these groups and their voters,” Stu Rothenberg tells USA Today‘s Jackie Kucinich. Asked about the Susan B. Anthony List pledge on the first day of his campaign, Huntsman made a similar point. “I don’t sign pledges,” he said, adding that candidates who do generally “don’t have a record to run on. We do.”

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