The Corner

The Pledge

The first thing that strikes me (especially in comparing this Pledge to the Contract With America) is how much progress pro-lifers have made both in the arena of public opinion and the intra-Republican debate on the abortion question. The Contract avoided the subject like the plague. This document speaks plainly of a commitment to human life several times, lists abortion funding as a key reason for repealing Obamacare, and promises a government-wide Hyde Amendment. We haven’t been able to move the courts, and so there is much work to be done in combating this most grave injustice of our time (and not much that can be done by Congress, alas) but progress is progress, and this is definitely progress.

The pledge also positions the Republican agenda in the context of a larger case about American history and the character of the country. The preamble is a very nice touch, and the themes it raises reappear throughout. The importance of formulating this kind of underlying case should not be underestimated.

One thing that laying out that context allows the Pledge to do is to articulate an agenda with a sense of humility—humility about what government can do and humility about what congressional Republicans can do (even if the election goes very well) given the fact that President Obama will still be in office for the next two years. In each of its sections, the document begins by laying out the (often very daunting) extent of the problem to be solved, and then offers some first steps toward a constructive solution. It doesn’t offer the sky, it offers useful opening moves that are actually plausible.

 

And in each case (and especially with regard to the economic issues), it is informed by a sense that congressional Republicans first have to stop the damage being done by the Democrats’ hyperactive liberalism, and only then can they turn to their own policies. The sheer hyperactivity of Washington these last few years has had a lot to do with keeping the economy sluggish: it has created uncertainty that has kept investors and consumers sitting on their hands. It is therefore essential to first create some stability by assuring Americans that there are not more tax hikes coming, that there are not more enormous spending programs coming, and that Congress is working to avert the impending disaster that is the new health-care law. Only then can we turn to more actively fostering the conditions for growth.

 

If anything is conspicuously absent from the document, it is the word “earmarks.” There is no doubt that the conservative crusade against earmarks is often more symbolic than substantive—earmarks are hardly at the core of our budget woes. But symbols matter, and for many voters, earmarks are a symbol of the corruption of our system of government. Republicans already took a no earmark pledge this past year. Some Republican members, particularly those on the appropriations committee, would rather not take another one, and the party’s leaders have been wobbly on the subject in recent weeks. They should straighten up, and make it very clear to voters that if Republicans win the majority, there will be no earmarks. That’s almost certain to be the case whatever the leadership wants—a massive new class of members elected for the first time this year is very likely to make sure of it. Why not make it clear in advance that this is where Republicans stand?

 

On the whole, in both substantive and political terms, the Pledge is a very smart and impressive document. Conservatives always love to complain that Republican members of congress and their staffs never get anything right. Here is some proof to the contrary.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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