The Washington Post

Why politicians can’t escape pledges

The 2012 presidential campaign seems to be rife with pledges these days.

A pledge represents a line in the sand, across which a politician commits to never cross. And thus far, GOP presidential candidates have signed pledges opposing same-sex marriage, abortion rights, tax increases and a debt limit increase.

The pledges are great for getting a politician to commit to your group’s priorities because, if he or she doesn’t sign it or doesn’t abide by it, it’s a pretty easy line of attack.

But as we’ve found in recent days, the devil is indeed in the details. And for this very reason, campaigns find these pledges to be among the most annoying parts of running for office.

Given the recent controversy over a marriage pledge and the proliferation of pledges, some have suggested pledges are losing their relevance and may be on their way out.

But don’t hold your breath.

One pledge – The Family Leader’s “Marriage Vow” – has been in the news in recent days, and for all the wrong reasons. After two presidential candidates (Rep. Michele Bachmann and former senator Rick Santorum) signed it, it was revealed that the pledge noted that African-American children had better family structures during slavery.

Look a little deeper into the pledge, and you’ll find all manner of allusions to other things, including protecting the next generation of Americans from pornography and even the words “anal incontinence.”

In the media, of course, the marriage vow is reported as a candidate signing a pledge to oppose same-sex marriage. But in order to get that headline, he or she has to comply with four pages of small print that may or may not include things that are agreeable.

That’s what happened to Bachmann, who insisted that the version she signed did not include the preamble that included the allusion to slavery.

But that’s not the only reason pledges are a drag.

Reading through the pledge, meeting with the people who are pushing the pledge and dealing with the attention that comes with the pledge are all nuisances for campaigns that would rather get their message out on their own terms.

(And we know how averse politicians are to taking absolute positions.)

In order to avoid all of it, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s campaign has instituted a blanket policy that it will not sign any pledges. (Of course, Huntsman isn’t exactly a social conservative favorite anyway.) And other campaigns are starting to get a little … well … pledge-weary as well.

There is a movement to stop the madness. Mitt Romney declined to sign the Susan B. Anthony List anti-abortion pledge because of some of its finer points – and instead issued his own pledge. And even Bachmann refused to sign a debt limit pledge because, in her words, it didn’t go far enough.

Unfortunately for them, in most cases, they will probably just have to grin and bear it.

The fact is that, while the Family Leader pledge became an issue because it contained some controversial passages, the objectionable material in other pledges is much harder to explain. Romney is taking a calculated risk by not signing the Susan B. Anthony List pledge – especially given his pro-abortion rights past, and even Bachmann is opening herself up by not signing the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge.

A pledge is much too powerful a political tool to simply go away. Nothing is easier than running a campaign ad against an opponent who has or hasn’t signed a given pledge that may interest the electorate. And the prospect of that ad is going to make every campaign think hard about signing the pledges that are presented to them.

At the same time, as pledges proliferate and the media tires of covering them, they will take on reduced importance.

Certain pledge have stood the test of time – Americans for Tax Reform’s no-tax-increase pledge leads the way – but others are relatively new to the scene. And those newer pledges are starting to lose clout.

But a pledge-free election is a long ways away.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.


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