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No New Pledges

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Among the Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination, only former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson had the self-respect to denounce the ludicrous "Marriage Vow" pledge. Such pledges are a means through which small interest groups can make candidates crawl. The intimidation comes from their highly engaged members, who can affect the outcome of unrepresentative political contests -- the upcoming Iowa caucuses being a good example.

For the record, Iowa is very much a swing state. As of July 1, Republicans accounted for 31 percent of Iowa's registered voters, Democrats 33 percent, and independents 36 percent. Yet small collections of fanatics can, in effect, threaten the political future of candidates who need to impress a wider electorate. Politicians' inability to say "no" to these pledges has hampered their ability to govern wisely in a complicated world.

Case in point: Many Republicans quake with fear at doing what they know they must to seriously address the deficit crisis -- include new revenues alongside spending cuts. But year after year, they feel forced to sign a stupid promise to never raise any taxes no matter the reason. The misnamed Americans for Tax Reform keeps them in the harness by threatening their political destruction if they don't sign its pledge.

The group can't even wrap its head around the idea that ending some rich man's loophole might be considered part of "reform." Thus, we have Republicans rejecting a once-in-a-lifetime Democratic offer to cut four dollars of spending for every dollar of new revenues.

The no-tax pledge is more damaging to the country, but "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family" is more embarrassing. The handiwork of a group called The Family Leader, "The Marriage Vow" demands that candidates oppose gay marriage and be personally faithful to their spouses. They must support "robust childbearing and reproduction" -- and promise to protect American troops from "same-gender or opposite-gender sexual harassment, adultery" and so on (like Marines need their mothers).

The worst part is the long disquisition on "the crisis of marriage," with extra attention paid to fatherless children in the black community. It is a habit of largely white conservative groups to point out family dysfunction in the black community but not in theirs. One may be concerned that 70 percent of African-American babies are born to single mothers, but the white out-of-wedlock birthrate is rising faster. And how interesting that the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts, also has the lowest divorce rate.

Anyhow, Gary Johnson blasted this nonsense as "offensive and un-Republican." He said, "Government should not be involved in the bedrooms of consenting adults." And, "We need to maintain our position as the party of efficient government management and the watchdogs of the 'public's pocketbook.'" If there were more elected Republicans like Johnson, there were would be more Republicans.

While lacking the guts to slam the "The Marriage Vow," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at least had the decency to avoid signing it, as did former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann jumped right in.)

The hope is that this growing resistance to the socially conservative busybodies will spread to the "no-tax" cult. Huntsman leads the way by forthrightly refusing to sign the no-taxes pledge.

Meanwhile, note a new CBS News Poll indicating that even 51 percent of Republicans disapprove of their party's performance in the debt-ceiling talks. Among the general public, disapproval of Republicans in Congress hits 71 percent.

Democrats have largely been spared the pledge brigades. Republicans should move forward in staring down the bullies, for the good of the country and themselves.

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