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Karen Heller: Instead of political pledges, do something

Why are these ridiculous promises needed? What do they prove? They're just a moral straitjacket.

Conservative activist Grover Norquist. His no-taxes pledge was signed by 277 members of Congress. (Yuri Gripas / Associated Press)
Conservative activist Grover Norquist. His no-taxes pledge was signed by 277 members of Congress. (Yuri Gripas / Associated Press)Read more

The epidemic pledge business is not merely a Republican presidential gambit but also, I suspect, a way of getting the electorate to pay attention to candidates who don't seem to be performing any meaningful work on a daily basis.

I'm talking about you, Michele Bachmann, and, also you, Rick Santorum.

For those keeping count, Bachmann and Santorum have signed multiple pledges to be faithful to their spouses, oppose same-sex marriage, reject Sharia law (was this a problem here?), reject new taxes, cut and cap federal spending, institute a balanced-budget amendment, appoint antiabortion cabinet officers, and terminate funding to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, plus clean up their rooms before bedtime.

They've vowed, and I'm not making this up, that "robust childbearing and reproduction is beneficial [ital theirs] to U.S. demographic, economic, strategic and actuarial health and security." Furthermore, they pledged that "married people enjoy better health, better sex, longer lives, greater financial stability, and that children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy," although according to what scientific studies is not altogether clear.

Right off the bat, these candidates have pledged their way into a big box of No.

Making this many vows this early in the campaign is akin to donning moral straitjackets and handcuffs, a puerile dig-in-your-heels behavior that suggests the death of reason.

Political pledges are self-righteous. They're smug. And they're 10 different kinds of stupid.

Not to put too moral a spin on the matter, though that never stopped the far right, but Bachmann and Santorum have been positively slutty in pledging their troth to whatever conservative group will have them. The Family Leader's original pledge document positively reeked of racism, claiming that the African American family was better off during slavery than under Barack Obama. Any sentient politician should have refused to sign anything espoused by this specious organization.

Candidates Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have shown more discretion, signing only some pledges. Uxorious Newt has not yet vowed to reduce spending at Tiffany, where he once maintained a $1 million credit line, though there's always time. (May I digress and share what's most bothersome about fiscal conservative Gingrich's Tiffany habit: In a market segment huge on wholesale, the place never, ever has a sale.)

Why promise the moon, the stars and death to Sharia law? Such vows reduce the possibility of dialogue and compromise, which should be the hallmarks of governing but, instead, seem to have fled Washington. Such recalcitrant behavior, marked by the 277 members of Congress who signed Grover Norquist's no-taxes-ever pledge, helped get us into this debt mess in the first place.

Few people like taxes, but someone has to pay for our government and the services it provides, like highways and the military. And some taxes make more sense than others, such as taxes on cigarettes and gasoline, which potentially reduce use while subsidizing necessary programs.

Nobody elected lobbyist Norquist to anything, yet elected officials feel more beholden to him than to the voters who sent them to Washington in the first place. His website boasts, "Grover Norquist is Tom Paine crossed with Lee Atwater plus just a soupçon of Madame Defarge." Perhaps he's knitting his way through the deficit reduction debate as he enjoys a tax holiday for millionaires.

"I don't sign pledges - other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife," presidential candidate Jon Huntsman tells crowds, immediately distinguishing himself as the lone adult in the Republican pack.

Still, the pledge business seems to be gaining ground. On Monday, Mayor Nutter introduced I Pledge Philly, which is not an Apple product, but "a promise. It's an opportunity. It's a goal," he said. "People can chose anything positive to pledge to impact the greater community."

Yes, this is an act of good intentions that, I suspect, will be embraced by the very residents who already work hard to make Philadelphia a better place.

As with most pledges, the people who should be making promises most likely never will: people committing crimes, perpetuating hatred or failing to help.

Nationally, Republican candidates should stop making the wrong pledges for the wrong reasons, to get attention and gain support from the conservative fringe.

Their promises are marked by arrogance, questionable logic - robust reproduction? - and rigidity in thinking that will get us, and them, nowhere. Don't pledge, do.