Advancing a Free Society

Why Litmus Tests Spell Trouble

Monday, July 11, 2011

You know it’s a bad day on the campaign trail when a candidate has to go to unusual lengths to assure folks that she’s not a fan of America’s slavery experience.

Which is precisely what happened to Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, after she signed a social pledge that contained some sloppy language regarding the present well-being of African-Americans and an inhumane practice abolished by Abraham Lincoln – as in “Party of Lincoln”, whose presidential nomination Bachmann currently seeks.

Here’s the original version of the document in question (formal title: “The Marriage Vow – A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family”) put forward by The Family Leader, an Iowa-based group, that Bachmann and fellow GOP contender Rick Santorum deemed worthy of their endorsement.

And here’s the passage that got the candidates in hot water:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African- American baby born after the election of the USA‟s first African-American President.

The source of this claim? This 2005 study, by the New York-based Institute for American Values.

So why would Bachmann, at a time when her stock is on an uptick and talk of debt ceilings plays to her strength, want to link herself to something as distracting as this sort of easily misconstrued language (language, by the way, that’s since been dropped from the pledge)?

Answer: the politics of the socially conservative Iowa Republican caucuses, where Bachmann has moved to the front of the pack.

Family Leader’s executive director is a gentleman by the name of Bob Vander Plaats – the same Bob Vander Plaats who finished second in Iowa’s 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, earning nearly 41% of the vote by bemoaning Iowa’s“fiscal and moral decline”.

Obviously, that’s someone Bachmann can't afford to offend at this juncture – thus the rush to be the first to sign on to the pledge.

This latest Bachmann flap (she also raised a ruckus via her views of the Founding Fathers and slavery) underscores a larger problem in Republican presidential politics: politically problematic litmus tests.

As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, a GOP hopeful weighing the pros and cons of the social contract in Iowa also must decide whether to commit to other groups' spending, tax and abortion pledges (Democratic candidates have their own steeplechases to clear).

All of which can make for uncomfortable moments for frontrunners, always calculating short-term gains in the primary season versus long-term pain in the general election.

Just ask Mitt Romney, who refused to sign the afore-referenced Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge. His rationale: he’s pro-life, but honoring this particular pledge would have “unintended consequences”.

Not to mention one other consequence: damaging the reputation of a Republican Party trying to promote itself as a“big tent” of diverse ideas and viewpoints.

Again, let’s go back to the Family Leader social compact and this passage:

Recognition of the overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better health, better sex, longer lives, greater financial stability, and that children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy.

Does this mean that one’s longevity improves the longer one stay a marriage – even if one of the spouses is a batterer? Or that a child born to and/or raised by a single parent is doomed at birth to a second-class existence?

Perhaps not, but a political opponent could easily spin it that way – as Bachmann discovered with regard to slavery and the modern-day underclass.

Time will tell if Romney pays a political price for trying to stake something more resembling a middle-ground stance on abortion – certainly a more nuanced position than most of his GOP rivals.

But perhaps Bachmann’s experience will serve as a lesson to her fellow Republicans: it’s wisest to look before you leap onto a litmus test – otherwise, it’s too easy for their critics to perpetuate the stereotype of social conservatives as “big tent” in rhetoric, “pup tent” in practice.

(photo credit: rosefirerising)