The senators and representatives signing the "Cap, Cut, and Balance" pledge arrived around the same time. Sen. Rand Paul ushered in his father, Rep. Ron Paul. Sen. Jim DeMint grinned so widely you could see it from the fifth row. Sen. Orrin Hatch walked in late, strolled up to the line of senators, and stood quietly in front of a pack of conservative activists— FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Independent Women's Voice, Less Government. Some of them are trying to defeat him in 2012. Better take the pledge and take his chances.
The pledge itself is short and radical: three lines, three promises. A signatory won't raise the debt ceiling unless there's a deal for "substantial" spending cuts, spending caps, and the passage of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that currently includes supermajority requirements for new tax increases. Ron Paul has signed it. Herman Cain just signed it today.
"There's an old country song that says if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," said DeMint. "That's what the American people see when they look at Congress."
That's something a few Republicans are tired of hearing. The debt-ceiling pledge is not the first blood oath offered from the conservative movement unto the GOP. It's the second one this month. Last week, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List introduced a anti-abortion pledge and proclaimed that Republicans who didn't sign—Jon Huntsman, Cain, Mitt Romney—were more or less raspberrying the "pro-life grass roots."
Campaigns are inundated with pledges; they get candidate questionnaires like the offices of the New Frontiersmen get unsolicited diaries from strange people. For Republicans, there are pledges to never raise taxes, pledges to repeal the estate tax (or "death tax"), pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
These are ways for candidates to win over interest groups. They're also traps. The attaboy you get from signing Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge comes with complementary attack ads claiming—not quite incorrectly!—that by doing so, you support "tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas."
The two new pledges are two fat straws on a camel's back. Jennifer Rubin has opened all manner of scabs by reporting on dissent from the Susan B. Anthony List's pledge. Cain didn't sign it because he wants abortion left up to the states, and all of a sudden he's a shill for the abortion industry? How's that fair?
"Herman Cain's gone off on a tangent," shrugged Marilyn Musgrave, the former member of the House who runs point on the pledge for the SBA List. "I was a candidate. I had pledges put before me. It's a commitment, so it's going to appeal to someone who's comfortable in her skin. Look, I know there are a lot of people who say they're pro-life but they've never broken a sweat on it. That's why we want people to sign a pledge."
Still, there are Republicans who resent this. Really, there aren't enough litmus tests for candidates? There aren't enough ways to trip them up and put them in the firing lines of ThinkProgress cameras?
"I would never want a presidential candidate to sign a pledge," said Rep. Charlie Bass, who as one of the two representatives from New Hampshire will have something to say about the party's nominee. The president will be "the commander in chief," he says. "He's going to make decisions about issues that come out of nowhere. Let's say—I'm just using this as an example—he signs a 'no war' pledge, and then we go to war? No advocacy group should be able to say, 'The president of the United States will never do something.' "