Washington Post: The danger in political pledges

This article first appeared online at The Washington Post on July 14, 2011.

The danger in political pledges
By Michael Gerson

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 that includes 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 are 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 governor 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.

This tone has begun to rankle, at least in Republican ranks. Grover Norquist, the author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, responded to Coburn’s heresy by saying that “he lied his way into office” and had “lied” to the residents of his state. Even the most vigorously anti-tax public official must resent being treated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Norquist Inc. Most politicians will accept reproof. Fewer will accept a leash.

Such highhandedness is said to be necessary because public officials are weak, variable and prone to destructive peer pressure. Paradoxically, the meek submission to such tactics only reinforces the stereotype. A little resistance — and little offended anger — gives evidence of a spirit not entirely sapped by the search for political approval.

The imposition of oaths beyond the Constitution also assumes a certain theory of representation — the belief that politicians are merely mechanisms for the expression of public sentiment. They are, in this view, computers to be pre-programmed for desired outcomes. When Edmund Burke was presented with a similar argument, he agreed that the opinions of constituents “ought to have great weight” with a representative. “But his unbiased opinion,” Burke continued, “his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.” This exercise of judgment, he argued, is not consistent with “authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience.”

Jeb Bush makes this point another way: “I never raised taxes. I’m pro-life. But I don’t recall signing any of those pledges. You don’t hide your beliefs. You persuade people. You win or lose. And if you win, you are not beholden to anyone or anything other than your own beliefs.”

Public officials are accountable to the public through elections — but they are responsible to the Constitution and their convictions. While the policy views of an American president matter greatly, his or her mature judgment and enlightened conscience matter more.

Share this article: