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Taking the pledge is popular, and risky, for candidates

It used to be much simpler being a presidential candidate, back when the only pledge that mattered was the one taken with hand over heart, pledging allegiance to the United States of America.

Now contestants are asked to swear any number of oaths. Among them: promises to oppose tax hikes and legalized abortion, fight pornography, outlaw same-sex marriage, denounce Islamic law, cap federal spending, overhaul the U.S. tax code, run Washington like a business and support a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

And that’s just on the Republican side.

With faith in government at bottom-scraping lows, each week seems to bring a new request from some interest group demanding that the White House hopefuls affix their signatures to a specific policy manifesto.

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To those pushing such pledges, they represent a way to force politicians out of their customary gray zone into a firm, inalterable commitment, inked in black and white.

“When someone takes the pledge, you know exactly what they mean,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, whose pledge — forswearing any net tax increase — may be the most celebrated and consequential in politics today. Signing is practically a rite of passage for any Republican candidate, and the collective vow has contributed to the impasse in Congress over raising the federal debt limit, just as it helped fuel the budget stalemate in Sacramento.

But if ironclad certitude works for Norquist, who keeps hundreds of signed pledges in a fireproof safe inside a hidden vault, others say it gums up governing by making compromise difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Circumstances change, said Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Iowa’s Drake University, and lawmakers sometimes need the flexibility to act accordingly.

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“You might have promised to drive straight, but if down the road you hit an unexpected curve, you have to bear left or right, or else head straight off the road,” Goldford said. “Even so, there will still be people who assault you for breaking a promise.”

For years, when political insiders spoke of “The Pledge,” they meant the one in New Hampshire, where opposition to taxes is practically holy writ. Republican Meldrim Thomson was elected governor in 1972 — after two failed attempts — by promising to veto any state sales or income tax, keeping “the greedy hand of government out of your pocketbook,” as he put it. Thomson spelled out his stance in writing, and a tradition was born.

Soon, candidates running in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary were asked to take a similar anti-tax vow, and most GOP hopefuls happily obliged. (In 1995, California Gov. Pete Wilson stumbled during his first New Hampshire visit when he made light of the pledge, joking it must have something to do with alcohol. His presidential campaign went downhill from there.)

Norquist took his group’s version of the anti-tax pledge nationwide in 1986; since then, it has been signed by hundreds of state lawmakers and more than 250 members of the current Congress, virtually all of them Republicans.

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Inevitably, seeing the publicity and power generated by that pledge, other pressure groups created their own sets of vows. Emulating the Republicans, Democratic interests have drafted oaths upholding abortion rights, opposing cuts to Social Security and allocating only enough defense dollars to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

Typically, politicians on both sides hate being cornered for such commitments — though they are publicly loath to admit it, lest they give offense. “It puts a candidate in a terrible position,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, who has fielded pledge proposals from the mayoral to presidential levels. “The issues are never as simple as the sound bites suggest.”

Pledges of any sort can have other onerous consequences. One Democratic consultant, who did not want to be identified to avoid harming his clients, cited the NAACP’s commercial boycott of South Carolina over the state government’s flying of the Confederate flag. To avoid doing business with hotels, the 2004 presidential campaign he helped operate was forced to scramble each night for accommodations for as many as 20 people. (That was not an issue for Republican candidates, who ignored the boycott, just as Democrats tend to shun anti-tax pledges).

More recently, two GOP presidential hopefuls were embarrassed after signing a conservative values pledge put forth by the Family Leader, an Iowa Christian group. Among its planks, the four-page document condemned same-sex marriage and pornography and called on the candidates to pledge marital fidelity and oppose placing female soldiers in forward combat roles.

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Most attention, however, was directed at the preamble, which suggested that black children were better off in some ways during slave times than under the nation’s first black president. Amid an outcry, that language was stricken and the two signatories, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, issued statements decrying slavery.

Other Republicans, including former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, opted not to sign, though in announcing his decision — “I prefer to choose my own words” — Pawlenty failed to say why he signed pledges opposing tax hikes and abortion. Romney also signed the Norquist anti-tax vow and issued his own version of an anti-abortion pledge.

The presidential candidate with the purest position on initialing such pacts is Jon Huntsman Jr., who has stated simply, “I don’t sign pledges, other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence the former Utah governor is considered one of the longer shots in the crowded GOP field.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com


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