Boston Globe: Playing the pledge game

This column first appeared online at The Boston Globe on July 22, 2011.

Playing the pledge game
By Scot Lehigh

WHEN THEY first ran for governor, both Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney were asked to sign no-new-tax pledges.

Although opposed to higher taxes, Huntsman refused to put his name on an ironclad vow limiting his options.

Since then, Huntsman told me, he’s “maintained the same philosophical approach.’’ Thus as a Republican presidential candidate, he has said no to signing pledges, including Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge to oppose tax increases and the “cut, cap, and balance’’ budgetary promise conservatives like Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina are pushing.

“Once you have signed one, you are pretty much obligated to sign them all, and that takes away your ability to govern,’’ Huntsman said. Besides, he added, “records matter more than pledges.’’

In his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney took a similar stand.

“I’m not intending to, at this stage, sign a document which would prevent me from being able to look specifically at the revenue needs of the Commonwealth,’’ he said. Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s spokesman, went further, calling such pledges “government by gimmickry.’’

As he runs for president, however, Romney has left that admirable independence behind. So far, he’s signed both the Americans for Tax Reform’s no-new-taxes promise – officially, the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge’’ – and the “cut, cap, and balance’’ pledge, which calls for amending the Constitution to require both a balanced budget and congressional supermajorities to raise taxes.

The no-new-taxes pledge, which has the signature of every noteworthy GOP candidate save Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty, has helped make compromise difficult in today’s Congress. The proposed amendment, meanwhile, fairly defines political gimmickry; still, all but Huntsman are aboard.

Now, litmus-test politics is hardly a one-party phenomenon. When there’s a Democratic presidential primary campaign, left-leaning groups are always ready with detailed questionnaires designed to pin candidates to their priorities. Labor, meanwhile, regularly tries to commit hopefuls to dubious measures aimed at enhancing union clout.

Still, high-profile pledge-signing is litmus-test politics taken to an extreme. There’s something both revealing and disquieting about watching the GOP’s would-be presidents sign away their future right to exercise careful consideration.

In this campaign, we’ve also seen the Susan B. Anthony pledge, committing signers – Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Santorum – to appoint abortion opponents to important cabinet and executive office posts and to deny all funding to Planned Parenthood and any other organization or institution that funds or performs abortions. 

Iowa religious conservatives, meanwhile, are pushing a “marriage vow’’ committing adherents to, among other things, fidelity to their spouse, a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, “cooling off’’ periods before “quickie’’ divorces, opposition to “intrusively intimate commingling’’ in the military, and an appreciation of “robust childbearing.’’ (So far, only Bachmann and Santorum have agreed.)

As a rule, pledges diminish candidates, while enlarging self-styled political kingmakers. Witness Bob Dole’s experience. Campaigning for president in 1988, Dole refused to sign the no-new-taxes pledge, considering it an abandonment of principle. But when he ran in 1996, the Kansas Republican acquiesced – only to have Grover Norquist, proprietor of the pledge, privately liken his capitulation to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. (Actually, Lee was dignified in defeat; Dole, however, seemed like a candidate brought to heel.)

Conservative icon Edmund Burke’s classic formulation about an elected official’s responsibility to his constituents also rings true here.

“It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own,’’ Burke said. “But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.’’

Huntsman obviously hopes voters will reward his Burkean refusal to pledge away his mature judgment. Most voters realize that such candidate pledges “basically render them feckless as leaders once they do take office,’’ he says. “People want you to govern, to set an agenda, to lead, to get things done.’’

Whether GOP primary voters will see it that way remains to be seen. Still, in refusing to join his party’s pledge-pandering herd, Huntsman has demonstrated the courage of his convictions.

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