Parsing the pledge

Well, they went and did it. Despite my urging against new policy initiatives when voters are already inclined to vote out the Democrats, some Washington GOP insiders felt it necessary to publish a “Pledge to America.” It wasn’t enough for them that voters were planning to vote Republican. They had to give them some reasons.

I get this. It’s V.O. Key’s “Responsible Electorate” concept. Voters should make choices based on informed comparisons of the parties. It might have sufficed for cavemen to grunt, “Democrats bad; Republicans good,” but in our enlightened age, it won’t stand. And when they win, Republican leaders need to assert a mandate, saying that their legislative agenda has the imprimatur of the people. It all makes some sense in a high-minded and theoretical view of the world. But this is politics and you have to be smart and strategic, not philosophical, to win elections.

This situation reminds me of some sage advice a wise grandma once gave some young girls about flirting. “It’s OK to hike up your dress a little to show some leg,” she counseled, “but for goodness’ sake, don’t pull your dress up over your head.” Authors of the pledge may have had grandma’s notion in mind. They showed a little leg and kept their dress on, but mostly they talked. If you find a lot of talking to be sexy, then this pledge was surprisingly beguiling.

The length of this document is its single most distinctive characteristic, for good and bad. It’s good in that length suggests earnest thought and concern. “If they care enough to write me a 26-page pledge,” some voters may reason, “they must be thinking deeply about me and our nation.”

The length is bad in that it allows for myriad policy proposals, including some turnoffs. It’s also bad, and good, to be long, because no one will read it. This is not V.O Key’s 1960s. People don’t read these days. They certainly don’t read extended text documents in .pdf format. So, to some extent, the length of the pledge blocked any of its own excesses.

To me, the pledge reads more like a speech than a guarantee of the contract variety. Its rhetorical flourishes seem crafted by a speechwriter rather than congressmen. The concluding call to action is speech-like. The pledge also contains lots of opinions and inferences (“an arrogant and out of touch government of self-appointed elites”) that arouse emotions but don’t commit the pledge-makers to any particular agenda. That’s good. Republican candidates everywhere should study the pledge for noteworthy rhetoric, something that’s not always in abundance in these sterile days of political communications.

Surprisingly, the greatest angst about the pledge seems not to come from the Democrats, but from the far-right and extreme-libertarian wings of the GOP. This may be a good sign that we are finally focusing our strategies on the center rather than the base. Some ultra-conservatives sneer that the pledge doesn’t go far enough in making specific promises to dismantle Washington. Obama didn’t tell voters in advance the specifics of his own plans. Why should Republicans be any more forthcoming? V.O. Key’s quaint notions of responsible elections are admirable, but not very practical in an era of hard-knocks politics. The pledge is an admirable tip of the hat to Key, though.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.