USA Today: Interest groups use the power of the political pledge

This article first appeared online at USA Today on June 29, 2011.

Interest groups use the power of the political pledge
By Jackie Kucinich

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman doesn’t sign pledges, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty does and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney recently received criticism from the right for not signing one, but then received praise for signing two others.

As each election cycle nears, interest groups of all stripes lobby candidates to pledge their support on a range of issues. In recent years candidates have been asked to pledge to end earmarks, limit government spending, work to repeal the health care law that passed last year, keep taxes low and strengthen abortion laws.

Deciding whether to sign a pledge often depends on a candidate’s sense of his or her standing, said Stu Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Politcal Report. “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,” he said.

Those contenders with lower name recognition have signed on to several of these early pledges immediately, while top-tier candidates appear to be exercising a little more restraint.

“The grass roots has been empowered and so you have the creation of these interest groups which are trying to mobilize the grass roots and the politicians take notice,” Rothenberg said.

Last week, a host of conservative groups rolled out a pledge aimed at cutting the debt called “Cut, Cap, Balance.”

The pledge asks presidential candidates and members of Congress to commit to significant federal spending cuts, capping spending after the cuts, and to implement a balanced-budget amendment.

Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative group, said it was important that presidential candidates sign the pledge to let voters know where they stand on the issue but did not say his group or any of the other groups present would shun GOP contenders who did not sign.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said it was important for presidential contenders to sign such pledges as “Cut, Cap, Balance” in order to show their support, even if it is a symbolic gesture. “A campaign speech or a letter doesn’t have the same ability” to hold candidates accountable.

Romney added his signature to the pledge this week, joining such presidential contenders as Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Pawlenty, former senator Rick Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain in signing the pledge that is backed by 32 advocacy groups.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leader in the Tea Party movement, took a harder line saying he would not support a presidential candidate who did not sign the pledge, no matter what records on spending they have had in the past.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and founder of an anti-tax pledge that has become a staple of Republican candidates, said not all pledges are created equal.

Norquist said while some groups create a pledge to draw attention to an issue of the moment, ATR’s pledge to oppose “any and all efforts to raise taxes” has been a must-sign for candidates for the last 25 years. He said he does not support candidates who don’t sign.

ATR announced last week that Romney signed the pledge.

Kevin Madden, a former aide to Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the competition among interest groups to get a candidate to sign onto their pledge creates unnecessary pressure on a campaign.

“Campaigns have to consider which is more important: owning and emphasizing your own message, your own agenda or giving some of that over to a series of signed pledges and questionnaires,” he said.

Susan B. Anthony List, an advocacy group that supports female candidates who oppose abortion, recently criticized Romney’s refusal to sign their pledge that requires candidates to promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, defund Planned Parenthood and end any government funding of abortion.

Romney, who has publicly supported abortion rights in the past but is now an abortion opponent, said that pledge would have unintended consequences.

Former Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo., project director for Susan B. Anthony List’s Votes Have Consequences Project, said a candidate’s record as a governor or a member of Congress can only show so much.

“None of them have been president, so despite what one would have done as governor or as a member of Congress, being president is a very different role,” Musgrave said.

While Susan B. Anthony List actively supports candidates who oppose abortion, Musgrave did not say the group would withhold support from Republican presidential nominee who would not sign the pledge.

“That remains to be seen, you know, who that individual will be but again the point of the pledge is looking for leaders on the life issue and also letting our over 380,000 members across this country know what candidates were willing to say ‘yes, I’m willing to lead on life.'”

Rothenberg said Romney’s strategy is “risky” but could have a huge pay off.

“Romney’s [strategy] is riskier but in a sense it demonstrates, reflects that he is the frontrunner and he has some strength that the others don’t,” he said.

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