WASHINGTON — Republican presidential contenders may be feeling nostalgic for the days when a candidate could focus on just one pledge: the oath of office.
With pledges spreading like kudzu on the campaign trail, candidates this year are being asked — in some cases, pressured — to profess their fealty to a whole host of positions: supporting marriage, opposing taxes, reducing the deficit, fighting abortion and gay rights and more.
And these aren’t just bland statements of support for broad ideals.
There’s a 14-point “marriage vow,” a three-pronged “cut, cap and balance” declaration on the national debt, a four-point “pro-life leadership presidential pledge” and a deficit-reduction promise tied to the “Lean Six Sigma” method of reducing wasteful spending.
The pledges, many advanced by right-leaning interest groups, are roiling the race, boxing candidates in to positions that could hurt them in the general election, and pushing contenders to make promises they might come to regret if ever seated in the Oval Office.
Some candidates welcome the pledges as an opportunity to strengthen their support among various voting blocs and to draw distinctions between themselves and their competition. But others are resisting pressure to adopt pledges that attempt to put words in their mouths.
Interest groups, for their part, use the pledges to get their names in the news, and to flex some muscle by threatening to withhold support unless candidates sign on — and stay true.
There are signs that some candidates have had enough.
“I don’t know why anybody puts up with it,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen. “You just don’t know all the ramifications of everything that is put before you.”
It’s a sentiment that’s apparently shared by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. He’s made a pledge not to pledge.
“I don’t sign pledges — other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife,” Huntsman said recently.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’s making a big play for the caucus votes of social conservatives in leadoff Iowa, is at the other end of the spectrum. She’s taken a shine to pledges on marriage, abortion, taxes and other issues, and has laid into her competition for holding back at times. On Monday, she signed the “cut, cap and balance” pledge during a campaign stop in South Carolina.
It was a reversal for Bachmann, who had said she wouldn’t back it because it didn’t go far enough. The Minnesota lawmaker said she would include her own addendum to the pledge — repealing the sweeping health care law.
True economic reform depends on it, she said. “I have the resolve and titanium spine to do just that,” Bachmann said.
When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s less invested in Iowa, refused to adopt the Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge, Bachmann’s campaign called it a “distressing” move and said it raised questions about his “leadership and commitment to ending the practice of abortion.”
The pledge includes sweeping promises to advance only anti-abortion appointees for “relevant Cabinet and executive branch positions,” cut off federal dollars for hospitals and clinics that perform or finance abortions, and support a ban on abortions after the fetus reaches a certain stage in development, among other things.
Romney, who once supported abortion rights, opted to write his own, narrower “pro-life pledge,” saying the Susan B. Anthony List’s declaration could have unintended consequences.
“It’s one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood,” he said in an op-ed explaining his decision. “It is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America.”
As for the “marriage vow” advanced by The Family Leader, a conservative Iowa group, Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty were among a number of candidates who balked.
Pawlenty, who’s staking his candidacy on doing well in Iowa, stepped away ever so gingerly, saying he “respectfully” declined to sign.
“I prefer to choose my own words,” he added.
Yet when it comes to taxes, Pawlenty, Romney and all of the other major candidates except Huntsman are willing to let anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist choose the words.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, created by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, commits candidates and office holders to oppose all net tax increases. The simple declaration is the granddaddy of political pledges, and has been adopted by more than a thousand candidates and public officials since its rollout in 1986.
Norquist frames the pledge as almost a service to candidates, giving them an iron-clad way to demonstrate to voters their opposition to tax increases.
“It makes it easy for people to make a commitment not to raise taxes that is credible,” Norquist said. Failure to live up to the pledge “has real repercussions,” he says, pointing to the unsuccessful re-election bid of former President George H.W. Bush.
Norquist was dismissive of some of the other pledges in circulation, saying “they have too many moving parts” and would be too hard to enforce.
And Galen was dismissive of some of the other pledge profferers, casting them as Norquist wannabes.
“Everybody wants to be the next Grover Norquist,” he said. “One of him is plenty.”
While Democrats at times get asked to sign pledges, the phenomenon appears to be far more pronounced among Republicans. But interest groups also try to pin down candidates of both parties by asking them to fill out questionnaires on important issues. And the candidates’ answers can come back to haunt them, just as do broken pledges.
In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama, for example, tried to distance himself from answers about health care, abortion and capital punishment on a 1996 questionnaire submitted when he was running for the state Senate. His campaign claimed someone else had filled out the paperwork for him. On another 1996 questionnaire, Obama said he supported legalizing same-sex marriage, a position he did not adopt during the 2008 campaign or as president.
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