Candidate pledges, an incidental part of past presidential elections, have exploded this year as advocacy groups seek to hold a future Republican president accountable.
Driven by the same anti-Washington fury that delivered scores of new Republicans to the House last year, the pledges aim to impose litmus tests on candidates and discourage them from altering positions later under political pressure.
“At a time when voters have grown skeptical about politicians and candidates who run on a certain platform only to backtrack once elected, signing a pledge is a good way to strengthen our political promises,” Rick Santorum, a Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator, wrote in an opinion column last week.
Critics say the impact of pledges can be pernicious, and they cite the profound impact of the 25-year history of the antitax pledge from Americans for Tax Reform, Mr. Norquist’s group. While supporters say it has enforced party discipline on a central tenet of Republicans’ belief, it has also backed them into an absolutist position.
Indeed, had Congressional Republicans been willing to make small concessions on raising some taxes, they might have already gotten many of the spending cuts they wanted from the White House by now.
“The danger of these pledges is it does prevent candidates from achieving 80 percent of what they want,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.
One candidate, Jon M. Hunstman Jr., a former governor of Utah, refused to sign anything.
“I don’t sign pledges — other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife,” Mr. Huntsman has taken to saying on the campaign trail.
At the Washington Post, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes:
I am delighted that my Post colleague Michael Gerson has joined Right Turn’s battle against pledges. Michael observes: “Particularly among conservative activists, the desire to bind politicians is often the evidence of disdain for politicians. Only a signed, airtight contract will keep a future president from ideological betrayal.”
Pledges also implicitly show disdain for voters. The voters apparently can’t be trusted to discern for themselves whether Mitt Romney is pro-life or if Tim Pawlenty is against gay marriage. So the special-interest group interposes itself between the candidate and the voters. The pledge masters determine for themselves, not by examination of the candidates’ records or public statements but by the pols’ willingness to capitulate to the pledge drafters, what is what. Considering that we are in the midst of an historic conservative grass-roots effort in which the citizenry has declared itself quite capable, thank you, of self-governance, this is more than a little strange.
Fairly soon, the plethora of pledges reduces them all to white noise. If Pawlenty signs the right-to-life pledge of one group but not the other, what does it mean? And if the candidate has legitimate objections to the language of a pledge, does that make him or her anti-whatever?
At The Atlantic, Chris Good quotes Grover Norquist on making useful distinctions:
Grover Norquist, president of ATR and author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, says pledges still work -- but he points out flaws with some of the newer ones. Every presidential candidate except Huntsman either has signed it or has indicated an intent to, Norquist said.
"I understand the impulse to build in the [Taxpayer Protection] Pledge, but the pledge is powerful and important and useful because it's been building for the last 24 years," Norquist said. "If you want a politician to make a commitment and you want it to matter, it can't be four paragraphs long, I can't have moving parts -- you can't remember what's in it."
The taxpayer pledge requires little interpretation, compared to the SBA List and Cut, Cap, and Balance pledges, Norquist said: "It's heads or tails, the coin never falls on the edge--it's either a tax increase or it isn't." The SBA List pledge, for instance, leaves doubt as to which executive-branch positions are "relevant" to the issue of abortion.
"Writing these things is not easy. The criticism of these other pledges is not that some person did something foolish, it's that it's very difficult to do politically, to keep your own team together" on one issue, in Norquist said. "It's difficult to write one that encourages people to sign and makes it clear that they've broken it, and is worth having."