Are We Seeing the Death of the Political Pledge?

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The right is awash in proposed vows, offered up by interest groups seeking to bind candidates. But few seem eager to sign this year.

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Over the last week, we've been treated to a small-scale campaign controversy over slavery and gay marriage. Reporters noticed that "The Marriage Vow," a heterosexual-marriage candidate pledge put out by Iowa social conservative group The FAMiLY Leader and signed by Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, contained this language in its preamble:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA?s first African-American President.

The group took out the language, intended to highlight how shabby things have gotten for the nuclear family under Obama's watch. Now, both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty have declined to sign it, Romney because he found some of the provisions "undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign" according to a spokeswoman, and Pawlenty because he supports a heterosexual definition of marriage but would "prefer to choose my own words."

All this comes at a time when Bob Vander Plaats, the FAMiLY Leader founder, has been using the pledge to pursue his goal of becoming an Iowa presidential kingmaker, on which The Atlantic's Joshua Green reported in May -- only to see that effort sputter.

The episode has highlighted a trend in Republican politics of late: The right is awash in candidate pledges, offered up by groups seeking to yoke the field of presidential aspirants to their agendas. And those pledges are struggling to take hold.

Conservative senators and a pantheon of interest groups offered up the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" pledge on deficit reform last month, asking candidates to promise support for "congressional passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution" (disregarding the fact that states must then ratify it). So far, the pledge has gathered support form 21 senators and presidential candidates Romney, Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich. But Michele Bachmann, the most prominent tea-party candidate in the field, isn't sold, having suggested it doesn't go far enough because it doesn't include anything about repealing President Obama's health care law. Sen. Jim DeMint recently said he's "disappointed" in her for not signing it.

The Susan B. Anthony List, which seeks to elect anti-abortion women to office, this year began circulating its own pledge among 2012 candidates, asking them to advance pro-life legislation, appoint only pro-life bureaucrats to "relevant" executive-branch posts, sign into law a "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," and defund Planned Parenthood and any entity that receives federal funds and performs abortions. The group is running into its own problems. Among presidential candidates, Herman Cain won't sign it because the president can't technically advance any legislation. Romney won't sign it because, as he explained in an op-ed in the National Review, hospitals perform abortions (an interpretation SBA List disputes as "lawyerly.")

"It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America. That is precisely what the pledge would demand and require of a president who signed it," Romney wrote.

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor running for president as a GOP centrist, says he won't sign any pledges. "My take on all of this is your record should say everything about where you are and where you're going. I don't need to sign a pledge," he told reporters aboard his inaugural campaign flight.

Even Americans for Tax Reform, whose Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to pass or sign any bill that would raise taxes has been a GOP institution for the last two decades, hit a minor speed bump this year when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) advanced a bill to roll back tax credits for ethanol, and some worried that it would violate the pledge. Senate Republicans maneuvered around this problem by coupling it with an amendment that would prevent a net tax raise -- a move that was moot, as Democrats denied them a final vote, but which required Americans for Tax Reform to issue exemption letters clarifying that GOP senators who supported the amendment had not violated the pledge with their initial votes. Not a big problem, but one that put ATR into momentary conflict with enemies of ethanol subsidies.

As more candidates reject more issue pledges, interest groups are now faced with a several questions: Is the Republican Party becoming saturated with these documents? Does their proliferation decrease their average value? Will more politicians, now used to saying no, adopt Huntsman's general reluctance to sign their names to someone else's words?

Grover Norquist, president of ATR and author of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, says pledges still work -- but he points out flaws with some of the newer ones. Every presidential candidate except Huntsman either has signed it or has indicated an intent to, Norquist said.

"I understand the impulse to build in the [Taxpayer Protection] Pledge, but the pledge is powerful and important and useful because it's been building for the last 24 years," Norquist said. "If you want a politician to make a commitment and you want it to matter, it can't be four paragraphs long, I can't have moving parts -- you can't remember what's in it."

The taxpayer pledge requires little interpretation, compared to the SBA List and Cut, Cap, and Balance pledges, Norquist said: "It's heads or tails, the coin never falls on the edge--it's either a tax increase or it isn't." The SBA List pledge, for instance, leaves doubt as to which executive-branch positions are "relevant" to the issue of abortion.

"Writing these things is not easy. The criticism of these other pledges is not that some person did something foolish, it's that it's very difficult to do politically, to keep your own team together" on one issue, in Norquist said. "It's difficult to write one that encourages people to sign and makes it clear that they've broken it, and is worth having."

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List, pinned pledge struggles on squeamish candidates unwilling to make solid promises and stand by their records.

"The folks objecting to pledges are not the grassroots, they're not voters, they're generally the candidates themselves, or the folks in the media," Dannenfelser said. "They tend to be the elite."

Dannenfelser doesn't seem worried that more candidates will be reluctant to sign pledges, period. "If they do, it will be at their peril, because it's at Huntsman's peril right now," she said. And Dannenfelser disagrees that her pledge is too vague; to her, it's okay to stimulate debate about terms, as long as the document itself is simple enough. "With ours, the simplicity leaves questions open, but those are good questions to talk about. The simpler the better. It doesn't lay everything to rest, but it is a minimum bar and a statement of principle.

Not everyone has to sign a pledge for it to be effective, because the political risks of not signing can still be enforced, sometimes by other candidates. Bachmann, for instance, has criticized Romney for declining to sign the SBA List's document.

Still, the supply-side economics of issue pledges seems to be turning candidates off. When the Taxpayer Protection Pledge was the only such document around, it was almost required that Republican politicians sign it. Now we're seeing that language, simplicity, and political calculation all determine whether a pledge takes hold.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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