My view on campaign pledges is well known: Interest group-generated pledges are self-promotional tools and often are more trouble than they are worth. The Family Leader’s Iowa marriage vow got Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) tripped up because the preamble argued that African American marriages were in better shape under slavery than they are now. But that’s not the only problem with the pledge.
Mitt Romney has declined to sign it. Today Tim Pawlenty said he wouldn’t either. Perhaps someone in their campaigns actually read the pledge.
The pledge is four pages long, with nearly two pages of footnotes. It has not been widely circulated in its complete form. But it is a doozy. It calls for “fidelity” on items that are rather far afield of marriage, such as: “Rejection of Sharia Islam and all other anti-woman, anti-human rights forms of totalitarian control.” Candidates are also supposed to agree with open-ended, bizarrely constructed statements such as: “Vigorous opposition to any redefinition of the Institution of Marriage – faithful monogamy between one man and one woman – through statutory-, bureaucratic-, or court-imposed recognition of intimate unions which are bigamous, polygamous, polyandrous, same-sex, etc.” Huh?
Suggesting that their real marriage vows are not sufficient, the pledge demands that the signer in order to “uphold and advance the natural Institution of Marriage, we ourselves also hereby vow our own fidelity to this Declaration and especially, to our spouses.” There are also convoluted statements like this: “Support for the enactment of safeguards for all married and unmarried U.S. Military and National Guard personnel, especially our combat troops, from inappropriate same-gender or opposite-gender sexual harassment, adultery or intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds [sic] (restrooms, showers, barracks, tents, etc.); plus prompt termination of military policymakers who would expose American wives and daughters to rape or sexual harassment, torture, enslavement or sexual leveraging by the enemy in forward combat roles.” We are going to can our commanders because they favor women in certain combat roles? Who knows what it means.
In the footnotes we learn, “No signer herein claims to be without past wrongdoing, including that of adultery. Yet going forward, each hereby vows fidelity to his or her marital vows, to his or her spouse, to all strictures and commandments against adultery, and to resist the lure of pornography destructive to marital intimacy.” So adulterers can get a clean bill of health. Other footnotes include a graphic list of sexually transmitted diseases and statements like this: “It is no secret that a handful of state and federal judges, some of whom have personally rejected heterosexuality and faithful monogamy, have also abandoned bona fide constitutional interpretation in accord with the discernible intent of the framers.” Who exactly is being accused of sexual misconduct we don’t know.
These are a very few examples of an overwritten, badly constructed document. The pledge is the work of an Iowa gadfly Bob Vander Plaats, who raised his visibility by taking presidential contenders around the state to show them off to social conservatives. Apparently that effort wasn’t an effective vetting process so this pledge was cooked up.
A spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad refused to comment on the pledge. But it is clear from discussions with conservative activists and operators in Iowa that the pledge has become an embarrassment. A Republican insider and social conservative was plainly frustrated, telling me the pledge is “kooky.” He said, “I’m a very conservative person. But I would never sign a pledge with ‘etc.’ in it. I would never sign a pledge with 17 footnotes.”
Perhaps this is why Branstad is staying as far away from the pledge as possible. Craig Robinson, an Iowa Republican activist and blogger, sounded exasperated when I spoke to him on the phone. “I think the Family Leader marriage vow has been a huge distraction,” he said. “Time is better spent” by the candidates, he cautioned, meeting voters “than spending time on a pledge that is obviously not well thought out.”
If their public positions on marriage and their own decades of marriages are not sufficient for Iowa voters, I guess Pawlenty and Romney are out of luck. But really what is the point of this and other pledges? One disgusted Iowa operative says that the pledge “is not the work of a kingmaker but a troublemaker.” Indeed, candidates who sign these things may have to answer some tough questions. The only ones to benefit are the groups who use the pledges to raise their own profile and fundraising totals.