Honest, open debate about what's best for the country has become an endangered species in Washington. New members of Congress and presidential candidates are increasingly tying their hands by signing pledges to appeal to their partisan wings. No wonder Washington is mired in gridlock over taxes, the deficit, social issues and more. Pledging to absolutes has become central to winning — and a major roadblock to governing. Dialogue and compromise? Talk to the hand.
Special interest groups have always backed politicians of their choice. But now candidates are the pursuers, lining up to sign pledges against taxes, gay rights and other hot-button issues in a self-serving attempt to appeal to the most extremist voters. One of the oldest and most successful campaigns, by antitax crusader Grover Norquist, has brought 95 percent of the Republicans in Congress to pledge not to raise taxes. The pledge has served as a litmus test and a rallying cry for the party during the impasse over a deficit-reduction deal with President Barack Obama.
But pledges have taken on a new life as Republican House members and GOP presidential candidates seek to ride the anti-Washington, antigovernment fervor of the tea party movement. GOP contenders have been asked to pledge their opposition to taxes and abortion rights and their support for marital fidelity and a balanced federal budget. The pledges are an easy way for GOP candidates to score points with social conservatives who vote heavily in the primaries. And conservative groups see the pledges as a way to hold newly elected Republican officeholders in line.
This practice puts the narrow interests of extremists ahead of the greater national good. And while pledges masquerade as principle, they reduce the debate over complex policy issues to sound bites and slogans.
Mitt Romney refused to endorse the antigay "marriage vow" pledge; the GOP contender labeled it "undignified and inappropriate" for a presidential campaign. One of his opponents, Jon Huntsman, has gone further, refusing to sign anything. Let's hope that begins a backlash against the sort of mindless campaigning that has come to define and paralyze the national political environment.