Here’s a pledge worth considering as election season heats up: no more pledges.
Presidential candidates for many cycles have been asked to "take the pledge" in New Hampshire, the site of the first primary. That pledge has been not to raise taxes, although it’s not always been kept.
Then, we have the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that is asking presidential candidates to not just take a pledge, but to sign one, agreeing to a host of preconditions that would bar someone from a senior government position if he or she supported the still-legal right to abortion. Not everyone has signed that pledge, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arguing, sensibly, that keeping the pledge could force him to deny funding to hospitals. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP primary.]
Now, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint is refusing to back GOP contender Jon Huntsman because Huntsman, a former Utah governor, won’t sign DeMint’s version of a loyalty oath—this one a pledge to "cut, cap, balance" the federal budget without raising taxes. Huntsman, in an interview with CNN, noted that "other than the pledge of allegiance, I don't do a whole lot of pledges."
There is a serious practical matter with these pledges, since circumstances change and new evidence comes forward that could lead to a defiance of almost any pledge. Ask the millions of couples who have gotten divorced. Or, just ask former President George H.W. Bush, who lost support after having to increase revenues to pay for desired government programs. The problem wasn’t so much the increase in taxes and fees; it was that Bush had unwisely said "read my lips: no new taxes" during his presidential campaign. [See a slide show of the 2012 GOP candidates.]
But there is a powerful philosophical issue as well, one that goes to control and undue influence. What these individuals and groups are really asking for is the right to control whomever assumes the presidency after the 2012 elections. It’s so audacious in its demand; others merely bundle campaign contributions and hope the winner will reward them. Asking a candidate to box himself or herself into a policy ahead of time—irrespective of changing conditions or unintended consequences—is tantamount to asking a candidate to be owned even before he or she wins a primary or a general election. Elected officials disappoint their core constituencies all the time; President Obama has been dealing with a disaffected left wing of his party for much of his presidency. But a disappointing free-thinker beats a candidate who willingly tucks himself or herself into the pocket of a special interest.