As Republicans open their political extravaganza in Philadelphia, launching their ticket of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney, signs point to a relatively benign platform-writing process. Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, the Republican platform committee chairman, has had to manage some dissent on such items as abortion and the federal role in education. But most everyone expects the platform to be approved by acclamation today, the first day of the convention.
Much the same seems in store for Democrats in two weeks in Los Angeles. A draft of their platform released July 8 elicited only muted criticism from the party's core constituencies, partly because it made some modest concessions to liberals on trade, the death penalty and gay rights. Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina, who chairs the Democratic platform committee, has made it clear he intends to produce a document for the convention that fits Al Gore like a glove.
The absence of platform pyrotechnics from this year's conventions will undoubtedly disappoint those in search of conflict and uncertainty, but should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched the campaign. Both Bush and Gore dispatched their opposition early and decisively. Each is in full control of his convention. But that hardly means the platforms are irrelevant.
Party officials understand that contemporary conventions have as their primary purpose showcasing their presidential ticket and framing the November choice in terms most favorable to their side. Nothing threatens that objective more than visible signs of conflict and uncertainty.
Given the expected tightness of the fall contestfor the White House and Congressmost party activists appear willing to pull their punches on the platform and let their nominees make the strongest case to those potential voters only now beginning to tune in to this election year.
In rhetorical terms, that casefor both Bush and Gorelooks soothingly moderate. The theme of the Republican convention is "Renewing America's Purpose. Together." Bush's compassionate conservatism will be on full display.
Speakers will look like America. Education, the well-being of our children and the importance of restoring civility to politics and dignity to government will dominate the messages. No explicit appeals to the ideological base will be allowed to obscure the pitch to moderate swing voters.
For his part, Gore is determined that the centrist tenor defining the Democratic Party in the Bill Clinton era is not supplanted by a rancorous scramble by interest groups to assert their positions on divisive issues.
Gore knows the Los Angeles convention is crucial to making a successful transition from vice president to his party's standard bearer. His themes of prosperity, progress and peace will frame the platform and the convention. But it would be a terrible mistake to conclude that this centrist rhetoric means that the two parties have converged and that no meaningful differences remain between them. Here's where the party platforms do indeed matter.
Read the documents side by side and you will be struck by the philosophical and policy gulf that separates the parties. Beneath the rhetorical similarity lurk fundamentally different approaches to the role of the federal government in economic and social policy and the place of the United States in the world.
Some issues clearly dividing the parties and their presidential nominees are: How to use the budget surplus, determining the size and beneficiaries of tax cuts, the priority accorded to retiring the public debt, regulation of managed health care organizations, Medicare prescription drug benefits, partial privatization of Social Security, increasing health insurance coverage, abortion, gun control, gay rights, education vouchers, federal judicial appointments, environmental regulation, campaign finance, national missile defense and conditions for military intervention.
If the stakes of an election are shaped by the contrasting choices offered by the candidates, it's hard to imagine a higher-stakes election. A careful reading of the party platforms will make that crystal clear.