Recently the mainstream media has devoted a considerable amount of attention to the presidential-candidate pledges drafted by various conservative groups. This past week, several media outlets — including the Washington Post, The Atlantic, CNN.com, and Reuters — have all written skeptical stories about these pledges. Most of the mainstream media’s fire has been directed toward the Susan B. Anthony List’s “Pro-Life Citizens Pledge.” However, the Family Leader’s 14 point “Marriage Vow” has also received a considerable amount of negative media attention.
There has certainly been some robust internal debate within the conservative movement about the merits of some of these specific pledges. However, in general, pledges are a sound strategy for conservative groups. Competitive Republican presidential primaries are one of the few pressure points that conservatives — particularly social conservatives — have on the political process. All too often, Republican candidates run to the right in the primaries — then to the center in the general election. A signed pledge increases the likelihood a Republican candidate will keep campaign promises of importance to conservatives. After all, if an elected official breaks a pledge, he will very likely face politically damaging scrutiny and criticism.
Furthermore, pledges can be effective even when candidates do not sign them. For instance, some presidential candidates who chose not to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s “Pro-Life Citizens Pledge” still made some specific promises to pro-lifers about policies they would pursue if elected. Interestingly, the pledges offered by liberal advocacy groups do not seem to generate the same level of hostility from the mainstream media. For instance, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee says more than 120 members of Congress are signees of a pledge not to privatize social security. Indeed, the mainstream media’s willingness to only criticize those petitions circulated by conservative groups might be the best evidence of their effectiveness.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.