Monday, July 18, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Republican presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum were criticized recently for signing a campaign pledge written by a conservative group in Iowa. By signing the pledge, the candidates vowed to defend traditional marriage, along with upholding a number of other conservative social values.
But the pledge sparked a controversy because of a series of inflammatory comments, particularly the suggestion that blacks were better off under slavery. Bachmann said the version of the pledge she signed didn’t include the reference to slavery, and the group has since apologized and removed that reference.
However, the situation raises the issue of the influence these types of pledges have on politics. Bachmann and Santorum signed the pledge, one of several that are being pushed on candidates by various interest groups, as part of their efforts to win conservative voters in a state that is among the first in the nation to pick a nominee.
In recent years, pledges have become pervasive, particularly in conservative circles. In the presidential race, groups are asking the Republican candidates to sign pledges to defend traditional marriage, oppose abortion, support a balanced budget, cut federal spending, cut the deficit and, of course, not raise taxes.
The pledges are used by special interest groups to try to control candidates. The message is simple: keep the pledge or else lose support and potentially an election.
Even candidates who don’t sign pledges can be affected, running the risk of being targeted or painted as a tax-and-spenders — no matter what they say about the issues.
Sadly, pledges have, in many ways, replaced debate and policy discussions and condense complex issues into short statements that eliminate many of the intricacies of public policy.
They might make good sound bites or serve as simple litmus tests for voters, but they fail to fully capture a candidate’s beliefs. They also don’t serve the public well once a candidate is in office. Elected leaders can’t govern effectively if they are bound by simplistic pledges that can’t cover all of the complexities and contingencies in life.
Nevada saw the issue of pledges play out in the Legislature this year. Although he didn’t sign one, Gov. Brian Sandoval made a no-new-taxes promise. He stood firm on it until the end of the legislative session when a Supreme Court ruling upended his budget plans, leaving a hole that was estimated at more than $600 million.
Cutting that amount from an already tight budget would have been devastating, and Sandoval agreed to extend some taxes that were scheduled to expire this year. That caused considerable angst among many conservatives, and some claimed he broke his promise — never mind that there was nothing new about the tax.
The no-new-taxes pledge has, like most, become absolute, no matter the cost. Consider that at the federal level, many Republicans in Congress won’t vote to end tax breaks for the wealthy and major corporations to make them pay their fair share because it would violate their pledges. They are, however, happy to decimate services people care about.
The result of these pledges is that the politicians who sign them are guided not by common sense nor by careful consideration of the issues but by simplistic, one-size-fits-all platitudes — and that makes for poor public policy.
In the end, no one is served well except the special interest groups that write these pledges.