Political Pledges and Hucksters

Question… should political candidates take ideological pledges? If they do, don’t they then compromise their future leadership options? Leadership, after all, is about the agility of decision-making in real time in the face of real and often unpredictable trends, events or crises.

Two oaths or pledges in current fashion are the Pro-Life Leadership Presidential Pledge retailed by the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that raises money for anti-abortion candidates. Then there is the Grover Norquist – led Americans for Tax Reform whose anti-tax pledge that punishes GOP legislators who either take the pledge and then renege or waffle or who fail to take the pledge at all.

The Pro Life pledge commits signers ” to select only pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions,” and “to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood” among other commitments. The Taxpayer Protection Pledge commits the signer to never support any new tax initiatives. If he or she contravenes the pledge, Americans for Tax Reform unleashes a barrage of opposition among its adherents.

These pledges are sold as prerequisites for getting the support of splinter groups of voters. But do these pledges ultimately constitute leadership or compromise it?

Seasoned leaders know that their success will depend largely on the diversity of options and solutions available to them and that leadership must be unencumbered by pre-electoral commitments, even those with which they might agree. An elected leader can have no foreknowledge of the challenges and events he will face. How would an anti-war pledge by Roosevelt have affected the outcome of World War II? FDR was loath to engage America in the war, but the escalating German aggression left him little choice.

Pre-election pledges drag us down as a nation and limit our options. They are quite simply political huckstering, divorced from the wisdom and charisma of true leadership, which, unlike many of today’s candidates, is expressed in humility, inquiry and open-mindedness.

Great leaders exhibit a sense of service to people and institutions, not to ideologies or special interests. They don’t trade political points for special- interest donations or restrictive pledges. They have the courage and humility to make clear that leadership calls on them to keep an open mind and the freedom to forge necessary change around consensus.

This bread and circuses approach to politics has precedents in our history and, every once in awhile, a leader surfaces among us who has the courage to walk away from the pervasive nonsense of politics and address honestly the economic, social, environmental or diplomatic challenges America faces. We can only hope that the next election will bring forth such a leader either from the incumbents or from the current gaggle of aspiring presidents, senators, congressmen and judges.

Any candidate who has shackled him or herself to a fixed-position pledge on anything prior to assuming the mantle of leadership will lose my vote, as they will have compromised the very essence of leadership.


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