Last Friday, Ramesh Ponnuru took issue with the Susan B. Anthony List’s “Pro-Life Citizens Plege.” While he supports the positions included in the pledge, he fears that signing it might actually hinder his efforts to advance the pro-life cause. For instance, he feels it would prevent him from supporting Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 general election, and might have prevented him from supporting Bush over Gore in 2000, since Bush did not make any commitments on pro-life personnel appointments.
I think that Ramesh is being a bit too harsh here. Pledges serve different purposes for candidates and for voters. For candidates, signing a pledge signals a strong commitment to take action on a specific issue — even if that action may not always be popular. While a signed pledge does not offer an ironclad guarantee, advocacy groups and voters know that that elected officials have incentives to adhere to public pledges. After all, if an elected official breaks a pledge, he will very likely face politically damaging scrutiny and criticism.
A voter who takes a pledge is showing his or her support for an issue. The 11,000-plus people who have signed the Susan B. Anthony List Pledge are sending a clear signal that they would like the Republican party to nominate a pro-life presidential candidate who will 1) nominate strict constructionist judges, 2) appoint pro-lifers to relevant executive branch agencies, 3) advance legislation to end taxpayer funding of abortion, and 4) sign into law a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. These are all important objectives for the pro-life movement and items that a pro-life president can certainly work to accomplish.
Suppose the Republican party ends up nominating a presidential candidate who has not signed the pledge or who has not committed specifically to one or more of these four positions. When faced with imperfect candidates, pledge signers can still prudentially choose the candidate with a stronger pro-life record. Since elections, unlike legislative votes, take place privately, pledge signers will face no penalty for supporting a candidate who may not be ideal but would be better than the alternative.
In the years since the Roe v. Wade decision, Republican presidents have certainly done some good things for the pro-life movement. However, some Republican judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments have certainly been disappointing. By getting some Republican presidential candidates to commit to activities that will protect the unborn and by showing that these pro-life goals have substantial public support, the Susan B. Anthony List is doing the pro-life movement a fine service.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.