What do Republicans really want in a presidential candidate?
The press has been tying itself into knots for months trying to answer this question, given how balkanized the party is by special interests, populists and special interests masquerading as populists, as well as the standard assortment of narcissists and paranoiacs that central casting likes to roll out for both parties’ primaries.
At last, a new survey has the answer.
Republicans, according to a YouGov poll, either want politicians who plan to break their promises — or who perhaps knowingly promise silly things and then stand by them anyway, even when they believe doing so isn’t in the country’s best interest. We’re still sorting out which.
I’ll get back to the details on that in a second. The first thing you need to know, though, is that this scoop has come about as a result of the sacrosanct tax pledge.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, introduced in 1986 by Grover Norquist, is foisted upon conservative candidates each election cycle. Candidates are asked to pinky-swear that they’ll never, ever raise taxes, cross their hearts and hope to die. More than a thousand officials have signed on over the years, and doing so has become a rite of passage for those hoping to pass muster on the right.
“In the past, almost all candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — including former President George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole and former President George W. Bush — have signed the Pledge,” boasts the Web site of Americans for Tax Reform, the Norquist-led group that administers the sacred oath.
This time there’s at least one glaring exception. Most of the expected 2016 Republican contenders — including Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio — have signed the blood oath, in some cases back when they ran for governor or senator. But Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and a likely front-runner in the primary, has not. Furthermore, his spokeswoman said this month that he will not sign it, nor any other “pledges circulated by lobbying groups.”
He’s taken some flak for that from Norquist and other conservative leaders. But Bush, as you may recall, surely recalls some instructive family history on the dangers of making these kinds of tax promises. His father George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Read my lips: no new taxes” 1988 campaign vow came back to bite him a couple of years later when he decided that taxes were sometimes in fact a necessary and justifiable fiscal tool (just as, mind you, anti-tax hero Ronald Reagan did). That broken pledge is widely seen as contributing to his loss in 1992.
Now back to YouGov. Curious what voters made of all this, the private polling company recently surveyed Americans about their views on taxes and these kinds of tax pledges.
To their credit, half of Republicans said they agree that “yes, it is sometimes necessary” to raise taxes. This makes sense; taking a standard if unpleasant policy tool off the table, forever and always, without regard for the circumstances, seems a bit closed-minded.
But when asked whether signing a “pledge promising no new taxes and to oppose any and all tax increases” made a political candidate more or less attractive, most of those very same Republican respondents said they were more likely to back someone who signed the pledge.
This is a bit confusing. Some Republicans seem to be saying they want their elected officials to make sweeping promises that could not, and should not, always be kept. Or, perhaps they are saying that politicians should make ill-conceived promises and then stick to them even if circumstances dictate otherwise, lest those officials be branded as “flip-floppers,” the most feared f-word in American politics.
Bush 41’s experience notwithstanding, it seems like the former is the case here. In a separate question in the same survey, YouGov asked respondents whether they care more about what candidates have done in the past, or what those candidates promise to do in the future. Compared with Democrats and independents, Republicans placed much more weight on records. This suggests that the apparent cognitive dissonance between their views about taxes and the desirability of tax pledges is explained by the fact that Republicans may not put much stock in promises of any kind, even if they may like to hear them anyway.
So promise away, as-yet-undeclared candidates. Start with the moon and stars; I hear they’re quite affordable these days.