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Lesson for pledge signers: Never say never

A few words to ponder as we sail toward the fiscal cliff. Those words would be: “That was then, this is now.”
Strip away the false piety and legalistic hair splitting offered by Republican lawmakers rationalizing their decision to abandon a pledge that they will never ever, ever, ever vote to raise taxes, and that’s pretty much what the explanation boils down to.
Rep. Peter King says he understood the pledge, propounded by the almighty Grover Norquist and his group Americans for Tax Reform, to obligate him for only one term. Apparently, he thought it had to be renewed, like a driver’s license.
Sen. Lindsey Graham says that if Democrats agree to entitlement reform, “I will violate the pledge … for the good of the country” — a stirring statement of patriotism and sacrifice that warms your heart like a midnight snack of jalapeno chili fries.
In other words: bull twinkies. If you want the truth of why a trickle of GOP lawmakers is suddenly willing to blaspheme the holy scripture of their faith, it’s simple. The pledge used to be politically expedient. Now it is not.
This is not, by the way, a column in defense of the Norquist pledge. The only thing dumber than his offering such a pledge was scores of politicians signing it, an opinion that has nothing to do with the wisdom or lack thereof of raising taxes and everything to do with the fact that one ought not, as a matter of simple common sense, make hard, inflexible promises on changeable matters of national import. It is all well and good to stand on whatever one’s principles are, but as a politician — a job that, by definition, requires the ability to compromise — you don’t needlessly box yourself in. Never say never.
Much less, never ever, ever, ever.
So this revolution against “he who must be obeyed,” however modest, is nonetheless welcome. It suggests reason seeping like sunlight into places too long cloistered in the damp and dark of ideological rigidity.
But it leaves an observer in the oddly weightless position of applauding a thing and being, simultaneously, disgusted by it. Has politics ever seemed more ignoble than in these clumsy, self-serving attempts to justify a deviation from orthodoxy? They have to do this, of course, because the truth — “I signed the pledge because I knew it would help me get elected, but with economic ruin looming and Obama re-elected on a promise to raise taxes on the rich and most voters supporting him on that, it’s not doing me as much good as it once did” — is unpretty and unflattering.
In this awkward about-face, these lawmakers leave us wondering once again whether the vast majority of them — right and left, red and blue, Republican and Democrat — really believe in anything, beyond being re-elected.
There is a reason Congress’ approval ratings flirted with single digits this year. There is a reason a new Gallup poll finds only 10 percent of Americans ranking Congress “high or very high” in honesty and ethics.
Lawyers rank higher. Advertisers rank higher. Even journalists rank higher.
This is the sad pass to which years of congressional grandstanding, fact spinning, cookie jar pilfering and assorted harrumphing and pontificating have brought us. And while a certain cynicism toward its leaders functions as a healthy antigen in the body politic, it cannot be good for either the nation or its leaders that so many of them are held in plain contempt.
The moral malleability exemplified by the likes of King and Graham will not help. Perhaps we should ask them to sign a new pledge: “I will always tell you what I think and what I plan to do in plain English, regardless of whether you like it or it benefits me politically.”
But no lawmaker would make that pledge. And who would believe them if they did?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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