The Republican Pledge Drive

The Republican Pledge Drive

By Michael Gerson - July 15, 2011

WASHINGTON -- A revolt gathers among Republicans against the place of pledges in politics.

First, Sen. Tom Coburn declared his independence from a portion of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Then Mitt Romney and Herman Cain rejected elements of the Susan B. Anthony List's Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge, which Romney found to be "overly broad." Now Romney, Cain, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty have refused to sign The Family Leader's 14-point promise in Iowa -- a comprehensive list of social conservative policy commitments including a personal promise of marital faithfulness.

These disagreements have produced some of the more entertaining moments of the political season. Coburn, one of the original tea party conservatives, leads the charge against political rigidity. Gingrich bravely opposes a fidelity litmus test. Romney resolutely defends his right to ideological flexibility.

But policy pledges -- depending on their content and motivation -- can have serious implications for governing.

There is nothing wrong with advocacy groups pressing politicians for specificity in a questionnaire -- which is another way of saying there is nothing wrong with free association and citizen activism. Attempting to put presidential candidates on the record can have the effect of broadening the policy discussion. Candidates naturally prefer to communicate on the three or four issues they feel to their immediate political advantage. But it also matters what a prospective president believes about cancer research funding, or the Armenian genocide, or the Defense of Marriage Act, or the future of the space program. These "special interests" also happen to be legitimate public issues.

Yet, the proliferation of pledges can be traced to another motivation. "There is a declining confidence that public officials can be trusted, that they will keep their word," former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told me. "Nothing is working very well right now. So people are creating extra-constitutional means to work around dysfunction."

The process of initiative and referendum is one expression of this distrust -- a method to circumvent the political class entirely. Another is the attempt to constrain politicians with blood oaths. 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. Holding his or her dog hostage might also help. Interaction with a candidate is based not on the identification of common goals, but on the assumption of perfidy.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Michael Gerson

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