By David Keene - 03/31/08 04:46 PM EDT
Karl Rove recently suggested that, “Party platforms were once the most important statement of the presidential campaign. No more.” He went on, however, to warn that candidates should realize that unimportant as they may be, “they can still get you in trouble with your own party, or with the public.”
They can indeed, but I’m not quite as sure as Karl that they aren’t important, even in this day of candidate-centric rather than party-centric politics. I would certainly recommend that anyone interested in the power of the various factions within either party pay attention to the platform to see who’s on top … and who isn’t.
Those within the party who are as committed to policy as to their candidates look to the platform as a way of laying out what they can expect should their candidate win, and research shows that in recent decades they can reasonably expect that something like 80 percent of the pledges made in party platforms will be implemented by a successful candidate.
That’s not because the winning candidate uses the platform as a guide, but because in most cases the platform reflects the desires of those who do the nominating and electing and because the final product generally reflects the nominee’s views as well.
Back in 1984, then-Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) chaired the GOP platform committee with John Bolton as his executive director. The two of them made it clear from the beginning that not even an incumbent president they admired should be able to dictate the terms of the platform.
They believed that the platform should be a manifesto of the party’s goals and principles rather than the sort of catalog of administration accomplishments and program proposals that have made most recent State of the Union speeches so incredibly boring and meaningless. They fought with Reagan White House functionaries who shouldn’t have worried during the drafting, because Ronald Reagan was in almost complete sync with his party — and the platform it drafted.
In recent years it has become commonplace to denigrate the importance of a party’s platform, but there are times when much can be gleaned both from the struggle to write it and the direction it takes. In 1948, for example, the fight over a civil rights plank authored by then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey signaled the impending shift of the Democratic Party on an issue of transcending importance to both it and the country.
The Republican platforms of 1976 and 1980 tell as important a story about the shift of GOP priorities. Even though Reagan lost the 1976 nomination, the platform that year reflected the views of the emerging conservative majority within the party. President Ford’s forces recognized this, announced that they weren’t much interested in the platform and rolled over for the conservatives.
Reagan was proud of that platform. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 1977, Reagan urged his followers to view it as a manifesto capable of attracting new voters to the GOP and thereby forged it as the framework for an enduring majority. Reagan declared, “This was not a document handed down from on high. It was hammered out in free and open debate among all those who care about our party and the principles it stands for.
“The Republican platform is unique,” he declared. “It answers not only programmatic questions for the immediate future of the party but also provides a clear outline of the underlying principles upon which those programs are based.”
By 1980, the new majority’s dominance was reflected in an even more conservative platform that recognized the growing importance of social conservatives in the GOP coalition that would dominate our politics for so long.
The fact is that those who dismiss the importance of a party’s platform are usually those who disagree with it and the people whose views it represents. Thus, when, in 1996, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) decided to rewrite the party’s abortion plank and failed, he dismissed the platform as meaningless, said he hadn’t read it and announced that he wouldn’t be bound by it. In fact, his failure reflected the simple fact that on this issue, at least, he was out of step with the party whose banner he was to carry in to the fall elections that year.
The question many Republicans are asking themselves as this year’s convention approaches is whether as the GOP nominee, Arizona’s Sen. John McCain will try to rewrite the party platform to conform to his views on a myriad of issues or whether he will allow the representatives of the Republican grass roots their say.
It will be interesting to see.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com