For candidates, position pledges can pose unexpected perils

Romney not alone in tripping over special interests

Mitt Romney refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s antiabortion pledge earlier this month. Mitt Romney refused to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s antiabortion pledge earlier this month.
By Shira Schoenberg
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2011

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When Mitt Romney refused to sign a sweeping antiabortion pledge earlier this month, the Republican presidential candidate found himself in one of the minefields of contemporary politics — the pledges and questionnaires advocacy groups use to get candidates on the record.

Not signing carries a risk, as Romney discovered when his refusal to sign the Susan B. Anthony List pledge revived doubts about his antiabortion commitment.

At the same time, candidates from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama have gotten into trouble by making promises they could not keep.

Pledges have been around for decades, according to Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, but he said “they’re particularly popular now when all it takes to circulate them is a Web page and e-mail account.’’

The problem with making pledges as a candidate, Harvard professor Roger Porter said, is that once politicians are elected, they have limited funds and political capital and circumstances change.

Jon Huntsman’s solution is not to sign anything. “Your record should say everything about where you are and where you’re going,’’ said the former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate.

But a candidate’s record isn’t good enough for the National Rifle Association, gay-rights organizations, organized labor, and local Sierra Clubs — all of which thrust questionnaires on candidates. The abortion-rights advocates at Emily’s List want to know if candidates favor federal funding for abortions for poor women. The Republican National Coalition for Life asks whether a candidate “accept(s) the scientific fact that a human being comes into existence at fertilization.’’

Pledges are particularly big in the antitax world. It was a pledge by antitax activist Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, created in 1986, that tripped up Bush in 1988. During his presidential campaign, Bush signed Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes. The candidate then made his famous statement at the 1988 Republican National Convention: “Read my lips: no new taxes.’’

But the deficit soared, Democrats controlled Congress, and Bush was forced to raise taxes. Democrat Bill Clinton used the broken pledge against Bush during his reelection campaign — and Bush lost.

Read my lips: don’t break promises.

Norquist’s pledge has also played a role in a recent Senate debate over ethanol subsidies. When Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, tried to eliminate the subsidies, he ran into opposition from Norquist.

The problem? Norquist’s pledge, signed by all but seven Republican senators and six House members, obligates members of Congress to oppose efforts to reduce tax deductions or credits without an equal lowering of the tax rate. In Norquist’s eyes, since Coburn was eliminating a tax credit without lowering tax rates, he was effectively raising taxes and violating the pledge.

Bush isn’t the only president whose promises have come back to haunt him. In 1996, Illinois state Senate candidate Barack Obama wrote in response to a questionnaire from Outlines newspaper in Chicago, “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.’’

Flash forward 15 years. First as a presidential candidate and now as president, Obama has supported civil unions for gays but not same-sex marriage. At first, a White House spokesman asserted that Obama hadn’t written the 1996 response. When that didn’t work, the White House issued a statement stressing that Obama has “long supported equal rights and benefits for gay and lesbian couples.’’ Pointedly, the statement didn’t mention gay marriage.

As if there aren’t enough pledges out there, 40 conservative groups recently unveiled a new one called Cut Cap Balance. Signatories pledge to cut federal spending, implement a spending cap, and pass a balanced budget constitutional amendment before they agree to raise the debt ceiling.

Huntsman is not the only politician to swear off pledges. When Republican nominee John McCain was asked during a 2007 debate why he refused to sign the Norquist pledge, McCain answered: “Because there’s no point. I stand on my record. I don’t have to sign pledges.’’

Steve Duprey, who was a senior adviser to McCain’s campaign, said the campaign received hundreds of pledge requests — from opposing the expansion of gaming rights in California to helping endangered species of fish.

“McCain said it was not appropriate for someone running for president to sign pledges for different interest groups,’’ Duprey said. “Look at his record, look at what he says, if it’s not good enough for you, don’t vote for him.’’

Romney’s campaign points out that if he did sign the antiabortion pledge, he may be faced with criticism later for the unintended consequences of its wording — like the stripping of funding from VA hospitals or limitations on appointments. But no such concerns — or the cautionary example of George H.W. Bush — have stopped him from signing the Norquist antitax pledge.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at