Heating Up in Iowa

July 14, 2011

The Iowa Straw Poll, which will likely spell the end of at least one Republican presidential hopeful's campaign, is now less than one month away. This week, several of the presidential candidates have spouted off regarding a proposal by a conservative Christian activist group in Iowa. The issue started when a group called "The Family Leader," which has led hosted several presidential candidates at events in Iowa already this year, issued a statement on marriage entitled "The Marriage Vow - A Declaration of Dependence upon Marriage and Family." Two candidates courting conservative evangelical voters--Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum (the photo is one I took of Santorum at last year's "Values Voter Summit")--quickly signed the declaration that urges candidates to stake out a strongly conservative position on issues of marriage (and other topics like Sharia). However, the statement soon became controversial due to a clause claiming that "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 statement left out, however, that the family could quickly be broken up and sold to different people during the time of slavery (and the fact that the evidence does not support the claim). That controversial clause was removed by The Family Leader. Santorum said he was "pleased" it was removed--even though he signed the statement with that language--and urged other candidates to sign the edited document. The Family Leader, which formed just last year, is led by failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Vander Plaats chaired former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's Iowa campaign. Regarding his organization's marriage statement, Vander Plaats said that "a primary candidate for the office of president will not get our support if they can't sign this pledge." He praised Bachmann and Santorum for quickly signing the statement, which he claimed "showed their executive leadership style." As Vander Plaats defended his controversial statement, he also attacked former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for having "been all over the board when it comes to marriage, or abortion, or universal health care."


With the statement now controversial, the other candidates in the race are refusing to join Bachmann and Santorum in signing even the edited version. Newt Gingrich, whose affairs and two divorces do not sit well with many conservative evangelical voters, told The Family Leader that he wanted "to work with you to sharpen it" before signing the 14-point pledge. Some of the clauses clearly raise issues Gingrich does not wanting coming up more in the campaign, such as pledging "Personal fidelity to my spouse" and supporting reforms to make divorce more difficult and rarer. Making a good point about language, a Gingrich spokesperson added:
Words matter and being clear and concise is important when communicating.
Going even further, Romney will not sign it. One of his spokespersons attacked the statement for having "contained references and provisions that were undignified and inappropriate for a presidential campaign." Both libertarian-leaning candidates--Representative Ron Paul and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson--unsurprisingly announced they would not sign the statement. More surprisingly, two candidates challenging Bachmann and Santorum in seeking conservative evangelical voters announced after the controversy about the slavery clause that they would not sign the statement. Talk radio host Herman Cain claimed his positions were clear enough without signing it. Likewise, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty basically said he agreed with it but was not going to sign it since it is now controversial. He statement offered:
I deeply respect, and share, Bob Vander Platts' commitment to promoting the sanctity of marriage, a culture of life, and the core principles of the Family Leader's Marriage Vow Pledge. However, rather than sign onto the words chosen by others, I prefer to choose my own words, especially seeking to show compassion to those who are in broken families through no fault of their own.
With even Pawlenty and Cain refusing to sign the statement, The Family Leader's effort here seems to have failed to impact the race as much as Vander Plaats and others had hoped. Even Harry Jackson, a conservative African-American pastor involved in James Robison's religious-political group, criticized the marriage statement as "rambling" and "unnecessary." Although Vander Plaats and The Family Leader will continue to influence presidential politics in our age of confessional politics, this incident appears to have backfired as they sloppily went too far.

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