The Pledge to America

Was it a good idea for Republicans to issue their Pledge to America barely a month before the mid-term elections? I doubt it. They were doing pretty well as the party that just says no. That response to Democratic rule, after all, is probably a fair reflection of the electorate's mood.

Democrats weren't getting far with their argument, true as it may be, that their opponents are bereft of ideas. However well Republicans do in November, they will not be running the country next year -- Obama and his veto pen will be there -- so they are under no real obligation to make promises about their policies. Whatever promises they do make will risk seeming phony. All the Republicans needed to do between now and election day was avoid giving the enemy sustenance by saying or doing something stupid: for many of them, a big enough challenge in its own right. Tactically speaking, the publication of this document was a needless risk: not much upside and plenty of downside.

For the next few weeks, regardless of the Pledge, Democrats can and will keep saying that the Republicans have no policies -- and they will continue to be mostly right­. But the document also gives them new ammunition. It helps them to do what they very much want to do: frame the election as a choice between two approaches to government, rather than as a protest vote against Democratic over-reach. So the Democrats get the best of both worlds.

As for substance, the Pledge does not really bear comparison with the Contract with America, to which it pays homage. The Contract was a much pithier and more purposeful-seeming document. (In political terms, it was a great success. Judged by results, of course, it ended up achieving rather little: the bills it promised to bring forward mostly got nowhere.) The Pledge is windy and vague, artlessly so, and it dodges too many important questions.

On taxes, it promises to "stop all job-killing tax hikes" -- that is, to retain all of the Bush tax cuts-- but says nothing about the comprehensive tax reform that will be needed to raise new revenues and balance the budget without avoidable damage to growth. The Pledge maintains the pretence that spending cuts can do all the necessary fiscal lifting -- and even here it is slippery. It promises to "roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels", which seems fair enough. But it also promises "common-sense" exceptions for "seniors, veterans, and our troops". Those common-sense exceptions are the whole ball of wax. The idea that you can control public borrowing without higher taxes and by squeezing only non-defense discretionary spending is, I'm afraid, delusional.

The Pledge promises to repeal Obamacare. It just cannot happen this side of 2012, so why make the promise? The briefest sketch of the Republican replacement -- tort reform, inter-state markets in health insurance, expanded HSAs, and so forth -- falls way short of the reform-done-right that intelligent conservatives should be calling for. Surely even those opposed to Obamacare can see that business as usual in healthcare, which is what these proposals amount to, is a wholly inadequate response to a healthcare system that is well on the way to bankrupting the country.

We will see if the Pledge gets any traction. If I were a Republican, I'd be hoping it doesn't.