China-US Focus

China as Seen from American Party Platforms

In this rare moment when two great powers are in the midst of leadership succession, each seeks clues as to the other’s future intent. Strangely there is one obvious place to look that Beijing may have overlooked: The party platforms that were approved at the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.

Not surprising, perhaps. As John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, recently asked reporters, “Have you ever met anyone who read the party platform? I’ve never met anyone.” He was probably joking. But could we be sure? Platforms are instruments of ridicule, as filled with bombast as the balloons that are swept from the convention floor.

Yet are they really so deserving of their bad reputation? “At least four studies have compared platform promises and the subsequent actions of presidents, each study spanning a minimum of seven presidencies,” I wrote in The Little Book of Campaign Etiquette (Brookings, 2000). “All reach the same conclusion. Presidents prefer to keep their word if only because it’s when they don’t that they get in trouble.” One of these studies concluded, “Only a tenth of the promises are completely ignored.”

The platforms are written by committees composed of two civic leaders from each state, who hold public hearings, and spend many hours in debate. Twice I have been involved in this process, and twice I emerged believing this was more than the window-dressing assessment that platforms are given in the media.

In 1960 as a young aide to President Eisenhower I was assigned to be the White House liaison to the platform committee; in 1976 I was the Republican platform’s editor-in-chief. In both cases I learned painfully how removed Washington could be from the party’s Main Street roots and how national leaders can lose sight of where their party is coming from.

The platform drafters are engaged in a collective bargaining process over the composition of the party. Its purpose is to tell voters what a party wants to do—if the party had full control and no strings attached. These conditions never exist, of course. Still, the documents they produce should be sufficient to tell attentive voters whether they fit better as a Republican or a Democrat.

If one candidate is the president, the drafters take their guidance from the White House, and the platform “points with pride.” It would be powerfully strange for a president’s platform to paint a picture in which the future does not look like an extension of the present. If the candidate is of the other party, the platform “views with alarm.” Nevertheless, for onlookers, whether interest groups, journalists, or countries, the platform points in the direction that the candidate’s party wishes him to travel if elected.

When comparing the two parties’ 2012 platforms, note the stark contrast in the language chosen by the Republicans and Democrats to describe their feelings about the People’s Republic of China. The question to consider is how much this reflects policy difference, or is this primarily a measure of Republican animosity—less important, but not unimportant?

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