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Fallout from GOP candidates’ refusal to sign marriage pledge in Iowa continues

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinPolitics_Thumb1.jpgRefusal of an Iowa-based social conservative pledge was swift work for former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson‘s presidential campaign. And pledge sponsor Bob Vander Plaats was just as swift in his dismissal of Johnson.

Vander Plaats, chief executive of the religious conservative organization The Family Leader unveiled the pledge, entitled “The Marriage Vow,” during a press conference at the Iowa Capitol late last week. Johnson, who was campaigning in Las Vegas, Nev., quickly issued a blistering statement that referred to the document as both “unrepublican” and “offensive.” The campaign also released a web video to bolster its position that The Family Leader’s pledge was asking Republicans to sign a document expressing ideas that don’t square with traditional GOP beliefs.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/johnson_tweet_07142011.jpgEven after The Family Leader bowed to controversy and pulled a preamble statement referencing slavery from its pledge, Johnson continued to voice his “serious issues” with the document. He said he was “relieved to know that Family Leader (sic) and its supporters don’t really believe African-American families today are worse off than they would be under slavery,” but that the changes to the pledge did “nothing to make their offensive and divisive pledge more acceptable to the vast majority of Republicans who get the fact that pandering to a small slice of Iowa voters and caucus-goers is a recipe for reelecting President Obama.”

Granted, there was inflammatory language included in both of Johnson’s statements about the pledge. For instance, he didn’t hesitate to refer to Vander Plaats and other staffers at The Family Leader as “a small group of self-appointed ‘traditional family’ advocates” offering a “judgmental and intolerant agenda.” But behind the rhetoric was also a caution by Johnson that Republican candidates should keep their focus on fiscal issues and preservation of individual liberties.

When Vander Plaats was asked specifically by Salon to give Johnson a response, he instead opted to simultaneously attack and dismiss the criticisms and cautions Johnson had lodged.

“Well, first of all, who’s Gary Johnson?” asked Vander Plaats, before implying that information contained in the pledge was provided by a higher authority that didn’t recognize individual opinions.

What It Means Politically

There’s little doubt that Johnson, a nearly invisible presidential candidate in Iowa, received added name recognition from the exchange. Name recognition, however, doesn’t always translate to added caucus support.

“Governor Johnson has a strong libertarian streak, perhaps even more so than Ron Paul, so his rejection of the pledge was no surprise. Johnson’s problem is that with Paul in the race he just isn’t getting any traction. He had a chance early on to become the libertarian standard bearer as a younger version of Paul, but he didn’t do well in the South Carolina debate and missed his chance,” University of Iowa political scientist Tim Hagle told The Iowa Independent Thursday.

In the long-run, Hagle says he doesn’t see Johnson’s strong criticism of The Family Leader’s pledge as being beneficial to Johnson.

“Other Republicans who want to minimize the importance of social issues — or Bob Vander Plaats in particular — might also look favorably on Johnson’s comments, but more as a way to diminish BVP, etc., than to raise up Johnson,” he said, noting that Johnson’s positions on issues like legalizing marijuana won’t generally resonate with Iowa Republicans.

Hagle said, in general, advocacy groups of all ilk have used pledges and vows as a way to keep their pet issues active in campaigns. In that respect, he surmised, “The Marriage Vow” has fulfilled its purpose. What puts The Family Leader organization in “a tough spot,” he noted, was its promise to only endorse a candidate that agreed to sign the pledge. The organization also recently appeared to double-down on this promise by making The Marriage Vow available for individual signatures. Those signing the document are promising to not aid or support any candidate or elected official who does not also sign the pledge.

Two 2012 candidates — U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum — have signaled their support, and both have taken political heat and public scrutiny for doing so.

“I would think that The Family Leader would want to endorse someone who fits their criteria on social issues, but who also has a shot of winning at least the caucuses,” estimated Hagle. “Based on current polling that would seem to leave out Santorum. Bachmann is surging right now, but that could change, so we’ll have to see how this shakes out in the long run.”

Depending on how those two candidates fare in the state in the coming months, the situation with the pledge could result in a loss of political clout by Vander Plaats and The Family Leader organization, he said. “Once candidates are willing to say now the first time, and are justified in doing so, it makes it easier the next time,” he added.

Five 2012 hopefuls have indicated their refusal to sign the document. A statement from a spokeswoman for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney referred to the document as “undignified,” political strategist Fred Karger said it was “painful to read,” and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain wrote is own values statement instead of adopting The Family Leader’s vision. Also in the “no” column are former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also provided his own belief statement, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who said he won’t sign any pledges.

In addition, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told caucus-goers in eastern Iowa this week that he would not be open to supporting the document in its current form, and Vander Plaats has been clear that more changes are unlikely.

“The problem with [the pledge] is that it is far too long and detailed. Aside from the preamble the pledge contains 14 items and about two dozen footnotes to various sources. Signing on to a pledge of that sort allows critics to argue that the candidate ‘approves’ of everything in it, including all the sources. That’s not something candidates can or should do,” Hagle said.

“I don’t know whether they should go so far as to refuse to sign all pledges as Huntsman did, but if it’s something short, sweet, and sticks to basic principles then it might be okay.”

If The Family Leader has backed itself into an endorsement corner and Johnson isn’t in a position reap the rewards of press coverage on his refusal, who does benefit from the pledge? Pawlenty, says Hagle.

“I thought Governor Pawlenty’s response was very good in that he basically agreed with the pledge’s principles but preferred to put them in his own words,” he said. “It shouldn’t hurt him with the social conservatives and gives him greater control of his message.”

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