By Christine Todd Whitman
September 26, 2011

Election-year pledges seem to be in vogue, particularly as the presidential cycle gets under way. Any number of organizations can ask candidates to sign their pledge to ensure voters, and particularly their own narrow audience, have a crystal clear understanding of the candidates’ positions on specific issues. In this way, pledges simplify the political process — providing both a clear view of the candidates’ viewpoints and a set number of policy choices candidates have committed themselves to making if elected.

But pledges, especially when in abundance, also weaken the political and governing processes. Where is the leadership we once expected from candidates, now that we instead simply rely on them to conform to narrow ideological statements? Signing pledges may seem easier, but it keeps an elected official from responding to circumstances as they change. Similarly, it’s perfectly reasonable for voters to want to know where candidates stand on the issues, but these positions should be considered in the context of how candidates think about, approach and decide on issues, not a series of commitments that make it impossible to adapt to crises of any sort.

We saw this play out on the national stage during the debt ceiling negotiations this summer. With so many congressional Republicans having signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge sponsored by the Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, president of the advocacy group, had more power in Washington than House or Senate leadership, effectively blocking Republicans from pursuing a variety of possible long-term solutions. Republicans lost a key bargaining chip with President Barack Obama in trying to resolve the crisis by not being able to raise any taxes, even if they did so on a technicality by closing widely unpopular loopholes.

The pledges signed by the Republican presidential primary candidates also reflect the unlikely marriage of fiscal and social conservatism that is the current Republican Party. It has always struck me as strange that my party is so eager to trust people with their wallets and yet, especially in recent decades, so afraid to trust them with the most personal decisions of sexuality and reproduction.

Among the various social-issue pledges that candidates have signed are the Marriage Vow, the Pro-Life Leadership Presidential Pledge and the National Organization for Marriage’s traditional marriage pledge. There are the fiscal pledges, as well: the Cut, Cap and Balance pledge; the New Hampshire “No Tax” pledge and the Death Tax Repeal Pledge, in addition to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. There will, no doubt, be more to come as the process unfolds further.

In addition to pigeonholing candidates throughout the campaign, pledges create more ideologically esoteric party platforms. As relatively small, but vocal, interest groups demand that candidates adhere to their point of view, the party’s platform, by definition, becomes a series of statements that appeal to very few. A vibrant two-party system is dependent on broad, not narrow, descriptions of each party’s fundamental view of the nation and how it should be governed. I have long said that my own party should be defined by very few principles: low taxes with balanced budgets, a strong national defense, engaged foreign policy, protection of the environment and less government interference in individual lives. Sadly, as pledges are added, the opportunity for such an inclusive message is diminished.

Real political leadership, as in the kind one is called to after being elected, is more complicated and nuanced than many of these pledges permit. What’s most concerning: These pledges allow otherwise unqualified candidates to hide behind a statement written by someone else in a blatant attempt to curry favor without providing any substance. It is important for voters to know how the candidates think — not simply how often they sign their name to others’ ideas.

Christine Todd Whitman served as governor of New Jersey and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.