Party Platforms Provide Glimpse Into Future

August 15, 2000

Are party platforms of any real consequence in campaigning and governing?

The absence of platform fireworks at both party conventions this year suggests that the answer is clearly no.

So, too, does the time-honored practice of Democratic and Republican politicians’ ignoring or distancing themselves from platform planks likely to be unpopular in their general-election campaigns.

Who can forget 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole’s dismissal of his convention’s platform: ”I’m not bound by the platform. I probably agree with most everything in it, but I haven’t read it.”

But this should not obscure the larger reality that party platforms matter in several important respects:

* They are crucial tests of a presidential nominee’s ability to control the platform-writing process and to put his distinctive mark on the party’s message to the electorate.

* As explicit statements of political philosophies and issue positions, the platforms make clear that there is substantially more than a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties.

* And platforms provide a remarkably accurate guide to what a presidential ticket and political party will pursue in office.

In wrapping up their party nominations early and decisively, both Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore were in a position to dominate the platform process. The choices they made—from the rhetorical thrust of the documents to the areas of continuity with and departures from their predecessors—are revealing of their campaign strategies, policy agendas and relations with their parties’ key constituencies.

The Democratic platform clearly reflects the strategic position of Gore and his party. The theme of ”Prosperity, Progress and Peace” is clearly designed to frame the election as a referendum on the good economic times. Much of the language of the platform attempts to document the success of policies initially advocated by candidates Clinton and Gore in the 1992 Democratic platform and to warn of the risks of reversing those policies.

The repositioning of the Democratic Party eight years ago—on fiscal responsibility, accountability for teachers and schools, welfare reform, anti-crime measures and the importance of international trade for economic prosperity—is affirmed in the 2000 document.

Some concessions are made to the party’s core constituencies on trade, the death penalty and gay rights, but the New Democratic architecture of the platform remains largely intact.

Gore’s choice of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., as his running mate underscores the largely centrist orientation of the Democratic platform. The watchword is continuity with the policy positions and successes of the Clinton-Gore administration, and separation from the personal failings of President Clinton. Gore clearly believes that he can win the debate on such key issues as tax cuts, Social Security reform, education, gun control and prescription-drug benefits for the elderly, and in so doing stitch together the disparate elements of the Democratic Party while appealing to swing voters.

The Republican Party, led by Bush, seems a far cry from the post-1994 congressional majority led by the likes of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom Delay and Trent Lott. The language of its platform now is soothing, inclusive and compassionate. Gone are the harsh language against immigrants and the calls for the abolition of the Department of Education and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Instead, the new Republican Party has strikingly different objectives: Prosperity with a purpose. Leave no American behind. Civility in public life. Leadership with honor and distinction. All of this seems tailor-made for a Bush electoral strategy calibrated for times of prosperity, scandal, ideological overreaching and partisan bitterness.

But beneath this thematic repackaging lies a GOP blueprint not noticeably different from those of recent presidential-election years. Language staking out party positions on abortion, gun control, gay rights, judicial appointments, civil litigation, property rights and regulation is left largely untouched. Large tax cuts and a muscular national missile defense reaffirm rather than depart from party orthodoxy. A partial privatization of Social Security moves boldly in a direction long favored but cautiously left unspoken at previous Republican national conventions.

In the construction of his party platform (and in the choice of Dick Cheney as his running mate), Bush has made peace with his conservative party constituencies while embracing a rhetoric and leadership style designed to attract moderate voters well beyond that base.

Both Bush and Gore put a clear imprint on their party platforms and reached accommodation with the sometimes-warring factions of their parties without the damaging floor fights at their conventions. Each showed himself to be very much in charge.

But the terms of their respective victories on the platform have real consequences—for the image of the two parties during the campaign and for the agendas each would pursue after the November election. No one who reads the platforms side by side can fail to notice the stark differences between the two parties on their conception of the role of government and on a host of economic, social and foreign policies.

And as political scientists have discovered from research on party platforms and policymaking over the past half-century, the vast majority of platform promises eventually are adopted. Departures in public policy initiated by Ronald Reagan after the 1980 election and Clinton after his 1992 victory, for example, were explicitly previewed in their respective party platforms. Adjustments were made, of course, in response to changing economic and political conditions.

But the direction of Reagan’s and Clinton’s administrations was crystal clear well before the election. And so it will be for President Bush or President Gore.

Party platforms do indeed make a difference.