Las Vegas Sun: From taxes to abortion, pledges secure spot in Republican politics

This article originally appeared online at The Las Vegas Sun on July 12, 2011.

From taxes to abortion, pledges secure spot in Republican politics
By Anjeanette Damon

Given the shaky reputation of campaign promises, it was inevitable that some voters would ask politicians to put them in writing.

Indeed, Republican candidates are being asked to sign a litany of pledges: to declare fealty to the rights of the unborn as defined by a national anti-abortion group; to repeal the estate tax; to not — under any circumstances — raise taxes; to not raise the federal debt limit unless a balanced-budget amendment, spending caps and significant budget cuts are in place.

In Iowa, presidential candidates can pledge to stay true to both their spouse and family-friendly policies. (The pledge is based, among other things, on the misguided assumption that blacks had a better family life under slavery than in modern America.)

The candidate pledge has become the campaign requirement du jour in Republican politics as conservative groups seek to create litmus tests for office. The movement hasn’t taken hold among Democrats.

“If there wasn’t such a distrust in elected officials, you wouldn’t have a need for pledges,” Republican consultant Grant Hewitt said of the steady stream of pledges that cross his desk during campaigns. “It’s kind of a sad state of affairs. It’s too bad a handshake and your word aren’t good enough.”

Republicans said the number of pledges have expanded recently, mostly on the national stage.

The incentive for candidates? Pledge-signing often makes for a good photo op. It can become a seal of approval for single-issue voters — the no-tax or anti-abortion crowds, for example. And they’ve become a hammer in Republican primaries — both for candidates who sign them and those who do not.

Take the Susan B. Anthony List’s Pro-Life Citizen’s Pledge. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s refusal to sign the pledge brought a rash of publicity, largely because of his changing stance on abortion. In response, Romney wrote his own “anti-abortion pledge,” noting his belief that abortion should be used only in “instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.”

Or, in Iowa, GOP presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have endured criticism for signing the Marriage Vow, a densely worded two-page pledge put forward by the Family Leader. The original preamble to the pledge said blacks were more likely to be raised in a two-parent household under slavery. The group has since apologized and removed the wording from the pledge.

Although publicity and easy points of attack are the benefits, the downside is simple: The fallout for breaking a signed pledge is more dire than an uttered promise, politicos said.

“It boils down to, if you’re going to take the pledge, it better be in line with your philosophy,” said Stewart Bybee, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who recently signed the Cut, Cap, Balance pledge on not raising the debt ceiling. “You could take heat for not signing, sure. But you’d take heat for signing and breaking a pledge, and that’s probably worse. So it cuts both ways.”

In Nevada, candidates are bombarded by national pledges. But fewer local groups are pursuing them, particularly on social issues.

“Part of the reason for that has been that Nevada has pretty much been a political backwater,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative operative and keeper of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in Nevada. “We don’t have a lot of strong independent conservative organizations like Iowa.”

Still, the pressure to sign pledges such as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, one of the most established pledges both nationally and in Nevada, can be intense.

Hewitt ran U.S. Rep. Joe Heck’s short-lived gubernatorial campaign in 2006 and congressional race in 2010.

Heck initially tried to avoid signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, not because he supports tax increases, but because he wanted his own word to be good enough. But the pressure grew too strong, Hewitt said of the 2006 governor’s race.

“You wind up at these events and you’re getting asked by your closest friends, ‘Why won’t you sign the pledge?’ ” Hewitt said. “Pretty soon it was like, ‘OK, OK, we’ll sign the pledge!’ ”


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