Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stupid Pledge Tricks

Stupid Pledge Tricks

Newt Gingrich has sent a letter in support of marital fidelity to the The Family Leader, a socially conservative group based in Iowa who asks politicians to sign a pledge called “The Marriage Vow.”

If I were Jon Stewart, I would just leave that statement out there, raise one eyebrow, tilt my head a little, and let the raucous laughter fill the set.

But, Mr. Gingrich could be our next President, and, since he seems to have come down with a moderate case of Pledge Disease, or “PD”, I thought it was worth exploring.  PD is functionally different than Acute Panderitis, in part because, with a Pledge, you actually sign something, instead of merely mouthing pieties to be forgotten after the primaries.  A Pledge is serious business.  A Pledge looks a lot like an Oath, and an Oath can lead one down the path of Faust.  What price electoral success?

To be fair, Newt didn’t actually sign the Pledge, he merely wrote in support of all its components.  Other candidates (Bachmann, Perry and Santorum) have actually taken the Oath.   This is a very broad Pledge.  In addition to the promise to be faithful to your spouse, it, with a considerable amount of specificity, touches all the hot button social issues: abortion, gays (in every permutation; gay marriage, gays in the military, gays overseas, gays in showers, etc.)  It calls for “robust childbearing” (again, channeling my inner Jon Stewart, I will leave that to speak for itself.) It’s against Sharia Islam.  And it has an economic plank: in the spirit of giving, it seeks to enact a series of pro-family tax and governmental policies (meaning, preferential treatment for faithful and robust progenitors) and it calls for cuts in government and government spending for everyone else. 

One wonders, how does a very conservative group such as The Family Council come to embrace Newt Gingrich?  President Bob Vander Plaats told the conservative Weekly Standard magazine that although Gingrich’s past is a concern, “part of our faith is forgiveness.”  It also helps to have an attorney’s “fine print” approach to things; among the 22 footnotes (seriously, 22 footnotes) Footnote 9 of the Pledge grants absolution, when necessary.  “No signer herein claims to be without past wrongdoing, including that of adultery. Yet going forward, each hereby vows fidelity to his or her marital vows, to his or her spouse, to all strictures and commandments against adultery…”

Of course, the Gingrich non-Pledge Pledge is a silly sideshow to gain a few votes in the Iowa Caucus.  The really big Pledge is Grover’s Pledge.  Not the happy, funny blue monster we see on Sesame Street.  Grover Norquist’s Pledge.  Mr. Norquist is more the scowling type, a man of firm ideas and the compassionate soul of Karl Rove.  He’s been called the most powerful person in Washington, and the thirteenth member of the Super Committee

Why?  Well, Grover’s Pledge, under the banner, “Americans for Tax Reform” is absolutely unflinching.  No new taxes.  None.  Never, under any circumstances.  Not war, not economic panic, not massive budget deficits, not flood nor famine, not pestilence.   Grover’s Pledge is very simple  “I pledge to the taxpayers of the state of _______, and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

What makes Grover’s Pledge really interesting is that it requires the continuance of the lowest rates ever attained, regardless of whether they were enacted on a temporary basis, while also locking in every single little tax gimmick, tax avoidance scheme, special interest legislation, questionable deduction or credit-everything from time immemorial to an infinite future. 

And Grover is serious.  Elected officials, having taken the Pledge, place in jeopardy their immortal souls (and their next primary elections) should they break it.  “It is considered binding as long as an individual holds the office for which he or she signed the Pledge.”   Like something out of an Edgar Alan Poe story.

There are currently about 271 Members of Congress have signed Grover’s Pledge.  271 bound people. 271 Members who no longer can think about the needs of the country, the practical implications of budget deficits, the fairness of the tax system, the funding of basic services, the reasonable compromises that are part of any enduring piece of legislation.  271 Members who answer only to the siren call of Grover.

Scared of pledges?  You ought to be.  Not because an elected official cannot hold, and express in their civic roles, deeply thought-out beliefs in limited government, low taxes, and/or conservative social values. But governing is about taking responsibility, not outsourcing it to an unelected third party.  271 Members are enough to have the legislative branch grind to halt.  And that’s exactly what has happened.  If Grover won’t bless it, it won’t happen, and the hard business of governing has been transformed into the risk-free, thought-free rule of the Pledge. 

More and more, we live in a world where choice is neither respected nor considered desirable, a “zero tolerance” world where facts, context, and circumstance are considered unnecessary distractions and individual judgment bows to a collectivist desire to control and punish.   It is the antithesis of the free market of ideas and personal responsibility that is the essence of a democracy.  Instinctively, many of us know this isn’t right; hence the enduring appeal of Ron Paul’s candidacy.

Shouldn’t an elected official be able to exercise free will when he or she is acting on behalf of the people who elected him?  The great British political philosopher, Edmund Burke, whose writings are part of the intellectual underpinnings of the modern Conservative movement, spoke of the obligations an elected official has to those who chose him.  He owes  "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.... not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

I’m not sure Burke would care for Pledges.  He probably wouldn’t make it out of the primaries.