New York Times Editorial, July 18, 2011
Signing Away the Right to Govern
It used to be that a sworn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution was the only promise required to become president. But that no longer seems to be enough for a growing number of Republican interest groups, who are demanding that presidential candidates sign pledges shackling them to the corners of conservative ideology. Many candidates are going along, and each pledge they sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.
Both parties have long had litmus tests on issues — abortion, taxation, the environment, the social safety net. The hope was that the candidates would keep their promises, and, when they didn’t, voters who cared deeply about those issues could always pick someone else next time. Human beings, after all, do not come with warranties.
But iron-clad promises were just what the most rigid Republican ideologues wanted. They had seen too many presidents — specifically Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush — bend when confronted by a complex national reality. Both those presidents agreed to new taxes and some Republicans said they did not fight hard enough to outlaw abortion or cut spending to the point where government was unrecognizable. In other words, they compromised a bit, to keep divided government from destroying itself. Washington, the ideologues decided, corrupted true conservatives into moderates.
More was needed to keep them in line, which gave birth to the signed pledge — no more enforceable than a spoken promise, but a politician’s actual signature was seen as more binding. The oldest and most pernicious of these modern oaths was dreamed up by Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, who has managed to get 95 percent of all Republicans in Congress to pledge never to raise taxes for any reason. If they end tax deductions, Mr. Norquist’s pledge-takers say they will match the increase in revenue with further tax cuts.
That pledge is the single biggest reason the federal government is now on the edge of default. Its signers will not allow revenues in a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Its success has now spawned dangerous offspring. There is the Susan B. Anthony pledge, in which candidates promise to appoint antiabortion cabinet officers and cut off federal financing to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. It has been signed by Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum. There is the cut, cap and balance pledge to gut the federal government by cutting and capping spending, and enacting a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. It has been signed by all of the above candidates, plus Mitt Romney and Herman Cain.
And there is the particularly bizarre Marriage Vow, in which candidates agree to oppose same-sex marriage, reject Shariah law and pledge personal fidelity to their spouse. Until it was changed after a public outcry, it also contained a line saying that a black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by a two-parent family than a similar child raised in the Obama era. It was signed by Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Bachmann.
Only one candidate, Jon Huntsman Jr., has refused to sign any pledge, saying he owes allegiance to his flag and his wife. It is refreshing in a field of candidates who have forgotten the true source of political power in America.
A Canadian Perspective
In Canada, we are much less overt about our "oath's". We pledge an oath, "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God" when we are called as a witness in a courtroom.
We take an oath when we join the Cubs, Scouts, Brownies and Girl Guides.
We express an oath when we join a service club or a fraternity.
And when we are 'installed' into a profession such as law, medicine, ministry, accounting and engineering, we pledge to uphold the standards of the profession.
When we become a citizen of Canada, not born here, we take an oath of citizenship pledging loyalty to the "Queen" as the head of state.
And, when elected to the House of Commons, we are expected to repeat an oath that we will uphold the constitution and the Queen as the head of state.
In the U.S. an oath is taken much more seriously than it seems to be in Canada. Or perhaps, it has been my experience that an oath seems to be considered an ideal, but hardly a "snare" or a trap in which to impale those who take it.
It is not only the "right to govern" that is being compromised in the U.S. by the plethora of "oaths" being demanded by various "control freaks" whether they are individuals or groups.
It is the very right to an independent thought process, an independent opinion, and a right to execute that position if and when called upon that is being sacrificed.
There is in this movement to controlling oaths a form of tyranny, through a forced sanitization of the potential for political power into a homogeneity of control that smacks of fascism that is most regrettable.
"If you do not sign our oath, we will not fund your political campaign," is the implicit requirement of those seeking to run under the Republican banner and certainly those seeking the support of the TeaParty movement.
Adults are being reduced to robots, able to be controlled and counted on to literally paralyze the government for the sake of what they call, mistakenly, "principles."
It all reminds me of an adolescent boys' secret society to honour long-dead poets, if only it were that benign and honourable.