Selling a sham

BY MATT HEINZE | JULY 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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Understanding the economy and the debt crisis might not be the most important qualification for Republicans in the Iowa caucuses. Don’t believe me? Just ask Bob Vander Plaats.

Last week, Vander Plaats and his outfit of influential right-wingers at Family Leader crafted a pledge-to-end-all-pledges in hopes of forcing GOP candidates to declare their stance on a range of issues. The pledge is a doozy, asking candidates to promise everything from defending our country from the nonexistent threat of sharia to defending the institution of marriage from gays.

However, while the pledge touches on a number of issues, most of the vows are simply a collection of generic integrity-oriented views or right-wing social beliefs. These include such vows as remaining faithful to one’s spouse and respecting the marital bonds of others — views that candidates of any political affiliation would no doubt support. Sure, there are more controversial vows, such as the aforementioned promise to prevent the spread of marriage equality, but even those fit neatly into traditional Republican positions for a presidential candidate.

The Family Leader pledge simply doesn’t deliver on substance. It allows candidates to commit to popular in-party policies while simultaneously skirting the bigger issues. Think of it as a pat-on-the-back that garners media coverage (though some of the media coverage has been less than positive). And all this comes at a time when less-experienced Republican candidates should focus on fleshing out their views to show they have more to offer than rookie flair alone.

Take Michele Bachmann, for example. She is obviously no more against same-sex marriage than she was moments prior to signing the document. Moreover, voters have learned nothing more about her as a candidate; she’s held the anti-LGBT position from the beginning. In fact, we still know very little about Bachmann’s specific policy views; and you’d have to be the biggest bonehead on Earth to believe voters, especially Iowans, received anything substantial from her signing this pledge.

So what is the significance of the Family Leader pledge?

Easy: It’s meant to draw attention away from the real issues as we draw nearer to the Iowa caucus season, namely economic recovery and a solution to the debt crisis. Family Leader’s marriage vow seeks to keep media focus on the spirited narrative of Good Ol’ Fashioned American Values. By doing so, it intensifies the mystique of the Rick Santorum campaign and the “sexiness” of the Bachmann campaign. (OK, so I borrowed the last one from Tim Pawlenty’s camp.)

Critics will contend the pledge makes reference to both debt reduction and economic stimulus, yet neither reference is substantial. Rather, the document demands that a candidate commit to minimizing the “enormous burden” of the United States’ debt on its citizens, a generic statement few from either side of the aisle would oppose.

Thankfully, some Republicans might share a similar view of the pledge. Of those, the most prominent is former Speaker of the House and current candidate Newt Gingrich, who announced Monday he would not commit to signing the Family Leader vow.

The pledge is “a terrific document as a statement of background information,” Gingrich told The Daily Iowan on Monday during his tour with the Family Leader, “but the presidential signature should be attached to specific policies.” Gingrich said his campaign would work with Family Leader in the coming weeks to create a specific set of policy proposals.

Gingrich’s response shows remarkable depth. It will be interesting to see how other candidates, such as Mitt Romney, respond to his decision to not sign on in the coming days. Oddly enough, it seems the Family Leader pledge may be able to teach us something on the potential candidates after all: who has substance and who is a gimmick. Intelligent Republican caucus goers would be wise to heed such knowledge.

Or they could just wait for another Katie Couric interview.

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