By David Keene - 09/01/08 09:32 PM EDT
Gustav notwithstanding, Republicans convening in the Twin Cities for their national convention have already accomplished a lot.
Much of the business of any convention takes place the week before most of the delegates arrive in meetings of the Platform (aka Resolutions) Committee and the Rules and Credentials Committee, and this one was no exception. The Rules and Platform committees have been the venues for many a fight over the last three decades as conservatives and centrists have grappled over issues as thorny as abortion, taxes and the nation’s role in the world. Party leaders and campaign operatives have approached the platform drafters every four years wondering what might happen and usually try to virtually dictate the platform plank by plank to a committee they hope they control.
Sometimes it’s worked, as when George W. Bush’s minions essentially quarantined the committee in 2004 and forced its members to accept a 42,000-word platform that read more like one of Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speeches than a party document. In its printed version it ran to almost 100 pages and, as longtime platform watcher Phyllis Schlafly noted, heaped lavish praise on Bush in at least 96 of them.
And sometimes it hasn’t, as when 1996 nominee Bob Dole groused — after losing a fight to soften the abortion plank — that he intended to neither read nor pay attention to the platform that year. There are many in the media and in the party who share the view that platforms don’t really matter, but history suggests the opposite. They reflect the direction the party is likely to take, and various academic studies of both party’s platforms suggest that more than 80 percent of the positions taken in the winning party’s platform eventually make it into public policy.
Activists in both parties know this and are therefore more interested than others in platform fights. This year, conservatives were very nervous about the platform for one of the reasons they have been nervous about John McCain as the party’s nominee. Many of them believed, or at least feared, that McCain was interested in both the presidency and in remaking the party in his image, with them on the outside looking in. During his 2000 campaign he had likened his effort to a corporate “hostile takeover” and suggested that if he had anything to say about it, the conservatives who have dominated the party since the late ’70s would be relegated to observer status. This fear spurred them to gird for a fight that never took place.
McCain’s forces this year decided that the platform should reflect the delegates’ views rather than his and took what amounted to a hands-off attitude as drafters produced a document that is roughly half as long as the 2004 platform and arguably the most conservative since 1976, when Reagan’s forces rewrote the platform and redirected the party even as their candidate was losing the nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford.
The result was that conservatives by Thursday of last week were more comfortable with a McCain candidacy than before.
Then on Friday, McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as his running mate and thereby eliminated the fear that he would try to force a candidate on the delegates who would have a leg up on anyone else in 2012 regardless of the outcome this year. That running mate would be in a position to do just what conservatives feared, and as they gathered for the announcement of his selection, they were prepared for the worst, but were jolted by the announcement that he had chosen Palin, one of the party’s rising conservative stars.
The reaction on the right was perhaps summed up by Jim Dobson, who reminded fellow conservatives that he had said earlier that he couldn’t vote for McCain and that he really dislikes flip-floppers, but that sometimes circumstances force one to admit mistakes and change directions. He could now, he declared, be counted as a McCain supporter.
Social and religious conservatives were joined by economic and libertarian conservatives in praising the selection. Even those who came to town as Ron Paul supporters cheered Palin.
The young governor has yet to prove herself in the hurly-burly of a national campaign, but the early indications are that her story, as well as her beliefs, will have broad appeal in this unsettled year. This means that, win or lose, when McCain leaves this convention, he will have something he didn’t have coming in and which he needs to win: the energetic support of his party’s base.
Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com