Pledge Politics: The Potential Perils of Pledging Allegiances

Perhaps former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman isn’t so dumb after all.

Huntsman took some heat from the chattering class for refusing to sign any pledge.

As the Associated Press reported, Huntsman told a group of South Carolinians at a filled-to-capacity barbeque joint that, “I don’t sign pledges — other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife.

Huntsman was responding to a question about the Cut, Cap, and Balance Pledge, but when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty today said he would “respectfully” not sign a pledge from The Family Leader, a social conservative group in Iowa, more debate ensued about the benefits of putting one’s name on a pledge.

Former businessman Herman Cain, who, like Pawlenty, does not need to worry about his social conservative laurels being criticized, also weighed in and opposed the pledge, according to The Des Moines Register:

“While I commend their intent regarding the pledge, I believe my stated position encompasses their values without the need to sign the pledge,” Cain said, according to The Des Moines Register.

The pledge mostly is about protecting the sanctity of marriage, and Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum had signed onto it while Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Gary Johnson did not. 

Romney reiterated his stance that marriage is between one man and one woman and expressed reservations about the pledge. Such reservations only help him in the socially moderate state of New Hampshire that he must win.

Pawlenty had a trickier calculus — he had to weigh potentially increasing his support among those on the social conservative right with perhaps taking a hit on his message that he is the Republican candidate that least offends any group, and this is the reason why he can best unite the party to beat President Barack Obama in a general election without repelling parts of the GOP coalition on his path toward the nomination.

“I deeply respect, and share, Bob Vander Plaatts’ commitment to promoting the sanctity of marriage, a culture of life, and the core principles of the Family Leader’s Marriage Vow Pledge, ” Pawlenty said in a statement. “However, rather than sign onto the words chosen by others, I prefer to choose my own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own”

Pawlenty concluded by saying, “I respectfully decline to sign the pledge.”

Pledges such as the The Family Leader’s have noble intentions. But when one gets into the weeds and examines the fine print, one often sees why they present candidates with unnecessary minefields they have to navigate. Many phrases are ripe for multiple interpretations and can potentially put the signee in the politically precarious position down the line of being accused of having “broken” a pledge, which would then give the signee’s political opponents a weapon with which to attack the signee.

Here are two such examples from the The Family Leader pledge:

Humane protection of women and the innocent fruit of conjugal intimacy – our next generation of American children – from human trafficking, sexual slavery, seduction into promiscuity, and all forms of pornography and prostitution, infanticide, abortion and other types of coercion or stolen innocence

How “seduction into promiscuity” and “all forms of pornography” are defined can easily lead someone to claim that the signee had in fact broken this pledge down the road.

Recognition of the overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better health, better sex, longer lives, greater financial stability, and that children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy.

Likewise, if a candidate pledges to recognize the “overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy … better sex,” what would happen if there are scientific studies that show people who are not married enjoy better and more exciting sex? By recognizing such studies, would a signee be then breaking this pledge?

The Family Leader’s pledge has noble goals and intentions, but, like with all such pledges, the more words there are in the pledge, the more perilous it often become for candidates to sign.

Candidates like Pawlenty and Cain do not need to sign a pledge to solidify their social conservative laurels just like candidates such as Huntsman do not need to sign pledges to affirm their fiscal conservatism.

In most cases, a candidate’s record should be a better barometer of a candidate’s stances than his willingness to sign various pledges.