Jon Huntsman probably won't win the Republican nomination for president, but he's already made a useful contribution to the campaign season. Unlike other Republican contenders, the former Utah governor refuses to sign any pledge that would limit his future flexibility.
"I don't sign pledges," Huntsman likes to say, "other than the Pledge of Allegiance and a pledge to my wife."
Huntsman's wisdom is visible every day in Washington. Pledges introduce an ideological rigidity into the legislative debate that paralyzes the process. In fact, the whole point of an oath is to cripple the system and prevent lawmakers from finding the common ground that makes governing possible.
Pledge-mania reflects one of the worst ideas to infect the capital since we started covering politics: that compromise is not only wrong but also evil. It denies the ability of lawmakers to grow and change, to learn from experience and experts and one another.
But compromise is not evil, it's essential, and the fight over raising the debt ceiling shows exactly how damaging pledge-mania can be.
Almost all Republicans have signed an oath, promoted by a group called Americans for Tax Reform, to oppose any tax increase of any kind for any reason. Period.
So it doesn't matter that every independent study on reducing the budget deficit recommends a combination of new revenues and program cuts. Republicans are locked into an unbending and unworkable position before the debate even begins. They deny, from the outset, the only possible basis for a reasonable compromise. As one Republican freshman, Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan, candidly told The New York Times, "There's more willingness to drive off the cliff." Drive off a cliff? Is that a responsible way to approach your job?
While pledge-mania is largely a Republican affliction, some Democrats are almost as intransigent. A liberal pressure group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, claims to have collected 200,000 promises from Democratic loyalists vowing not to campaign for President Obama's re-election if he signs on to a budget deal that includes cuts in entitlements.
Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, insists that any changes to Medicare and Social Security are "absolutely" out of bounds and adds, "It is a flag that we've planted that we will protect and defend."
But planting flags is like signing pledges. Both actions take reason and good sense off the negotiating table.
Oath-taking is not a new idea. Americans for Tax Reform has been around for decades, but this year the whole concept has exploded.
Candidates are being pressured to oppose a range of sins, as defined by the pledge-writers: from infidelity and pornography to abortion and gay marriage. One pledge commits Republican lawmakers to oppose any increase in the debt ceiling unless Congress also passes a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Since that will never happen, any signer is automatically joining the cliff-driving caucus.
Two sparks ignited this explosion. One is the growing distrust of Washington in general and Congress in particular. In poll figures compiled by the website Real Clear Politics, fewer than one in five voters viewed Congress favorably, and for good reason. All too often, lawmakers seem incapable of grappling with the problems that matter to most Americans.
But the answer to congressional stagnation is to remove their ideological shackles, not add new ones. Pledge-mania profoundly misunderstands the nature of representative government. Yes, lawmakers are obligated to reflect their constituents, but they are also obligated to inform and educate and lead them. The British statesman Edmund Burke was exactly right in 1774 when he famously told his voters in Bristol, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
The second cause of pledge-mania is the growing impulse to view politics as a branch of theology. In this mindset, faith matters more than facts. Making unbreakable promises is a lot easier when you are untroubled by doubt and have nothing to learn.
So conservatives feel free to "drive off the cliff" on the debt-ceiling issue because, they insist, the experts are all wrong and fears of a default are overblown. Liberals have their own orthodoxies that defy reality: Social spending never has to be reformed, for example, or free trade costs American jobs.
USA Today was right in saying, "Candidates who sign pledges outsource their brains," but it's actually worse than that. By giving up their capacity for judgment, they are outsourcing their hearts, as well.