Republicans, especially presidential candidates, are on the verge of being
inundated with pledges. Not to the Constitution or their constituents
because that would actually make some sense. No, they are now expected to
sign on to a number of special interest group pledges. Failure to do so
could result in a candidate being shunned by the very voters he or she
There is a certain irony in all of this. Our Constitution includes the
specific language of the presidents oath of office but not for members of
Congress. It only requires that our Senators and Representatives ...
shall be bound by oath or affirmation... to defend and protect that
In 1789, Congress came up with a pretty good little oath; clean, simple
and straightforward: I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support
the Constitution of the United States.
Alas, those 14 words lasted only about 75 years. After the Civil War a
new oath was conjured up, allegedly to protect us from those pesky
southerners and their traitorous northern brethren. And, of course, the
ubiquitous so help me God was added.
We now have plenty of oaths and pledges and none of them are especially
brief or elegant. The target for all of them seems to be Republicans who,
apparently, cannot be trusted unless theyve signed some kind of pledge.
Special interest groups have always demanded a certain amount of loyalty
in exchange for their support. Nothing surprising or untoward about that.
But 2012 Republican presidential candidates are faced with more litmus
tests than a 6th grade science class.
For starters, there is the No New Taxes pledge of Grover Norquist and his
Americans for Tax Reform. This one is so old it was first offered in
1986 its practically an historical document in political terms. It
actually is simple; no new taxes, period.
So far, more than 230 Republican members of the House and 40 members of
the Senate have signed Norquists pledge. They arent raising taxes or
voting for any new taxes no matter what. It does sort of limit they way
in which they deal with the current budget mess and eliminates their
ability to become involved in any kind of rational budget discussions but,
hey, they signed a pledge.
As you would expect, there is also a Pro-Life Presidential Leadership
pledge. It is exactly what youd guess; a promise to oppose abortions
under almost any circumstance and work to overturn Roe v. Wade. Weve
heard both sides of this argument so many times over so many years we can
recite the entire debate by rote.
A new player in the pledge sweepstakes is something called the Cut, Cap
and Balance pledge. The idea is to cut the budget, create spending caps
that are actually enforceable and support a constitutional amendment that
requires the budget be balanced. The House has now passed cut, cap and
balance legislation but the Senate is incredibly unlikely to follow suit
and the president has already promised a veto in the unlikely event the
bill reaches his desk.
Far and away the most spectacular of the current pledges comes from a
newly minted special interest group in Iowa calling itself The Family
Leader. Theyve concocted a real dandy of a pledge, the Declaration of
Dependence Upon Marriage and Family, ostensibly to protect traditional
marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
That would have been simple enough as a standard anti-gay marriage
promise. But the Family Leader pledge contains 14 points. Among other
things, it requires support of faithful constitutionalist judges,
opposition to abortion, opposition to pornography, and in a delightful
bit of nonsense, opposition to Sharia law. Of course, there is no
Islamic Sharia law in our justice system, no one has suggested any such
thing, no such thing is even remotely possible but its a nice bit of
ugly Muslim-baiting by the conservative evangelicals who created this
Most of the time special interest groups have enough common sense to
realize theyll need to do more than just threaten candidates who dont
necessarily agree with every single thing they want. They lobby them,
talk to them, reason with them, attempt to persuade them. At least
that used to be the case. Not so much anymore.
Those who now offer up these pledges have a different approach sign this
pledge or we will destroy you politically. Its not neighborly or
We understand that Republicans now pledging away their independence must
appeal to their base. That means mostly conservative voters, especially
those identifying themselves as evangelicals, who tend to turn out for
primary elections in larger numbers than other Republican voters. Signing
all these pledges proves the candidate is serious about issues important
to those voters.
It also makes it difficult to appeal to Independents, cross-over Democrats
and other general election voters who may not agree with every word of
every pledge. Having pledged themselves into an ideological corner,
theres no room for escape.
If elected, adherence to the pledges becomes even more nonsensical since
elected officials are supposed to represent all of us, not just those who
agree with their pledge-taking. Governing requires room for
give-and-take, not rigid adherence to the narrow visions of a narrow
segment of the electorate.
A better pledge might be this I promise to behave like an adult, refrain
from insulting those with whom I dont agree, tell the truth, try my best
to represent all the people in my district (or state or country), always
understand that I work for my constituents and not the other way around,
and believe the Constitution is a living document I will support, protect