One of the unfortunate consequences of the Todd Akin fiasco for Republicans has been the way the jaw-dropping stupidity of his comment about rape and pregnancy has been used to shine a spotlight on the party platform that will be adopted next week at their national convention in Tampa. Not surprisingly, the document contains a plank opposing abortion and does so in absolute terms without discussing any possible exceptions including for the life of the mother or rape. That is a position that many social conservatives hold but is probably not shared by most Republicans, even those who consider themselves pro-life. This plank will help liberals who will use it to bolster their fallacious claim that the GOP is fighting a “war on women” so as to distract voters from the failed record of President Obama. But the real misnomer here is not so much the disingenuous talking points of the Democrats as the assumption that a party platform has any real meaning in this day and age.
Like the national conventions themselves, platforms are a vestige of a bygone era when the candidates were actually chosen at these gatherings. In the past, platforms were a big deal with the committees tasked with writing the document holding public hearings and the debate and votes on the various planks were big news stories. They aren’t anymore–for a good reason. Though some people take a lot of trouble writing them, they are utterly meaningless. They are a convenient way to mollify party activists by giving them something to do that will be ignored even if their side wins in November. If the platform actually meant anything there might have been a fight about its language. The only people who pay attention to the platforms are researchers looking for ammunition to use against their opponents.
Liberals, like those who write the New York Times editorial page, who want to skewer the Republicans on abortion can harp about the language in the GOP platform because it has some symbolic importance. The Republican platform is very conservative just as the Democratic one is extremely liberal. But the idea that a party is somehow obligated or even likely to put the ideas in the document into practice is a fantasy. Presidents and congressional majorities have been ignoring party platforms for over a century. If they hadn’t, the U.S. Embassy in Israel would have been moved to Jerusalem decades ago. The 2012 Republican platform and its Democratic counterpart will be filed and forgotten as soon as the election is over, as has every one that went before it.
There have been memorable platform fights in the past. The 1968 Democratic Convention practically came to blows over the Vietnam War. But such disputes have always been a function of the bigger argument between rival presidential candidates whose backers would squabble over credentials and platform planks before getting down to deciding on a nominee. Since it has been 36 years since the last time when the identity of the nominee was still in doubt when a convention began (1976, when Gerald Ford edged out Ronald Reagan for the GOP nod), it has been almost as long since anybody bothered arguing much about a platform.
Today the conventions are merely scripted television shows rather than actual deliberative assemblies, a remnant of a once vibrant political tradition that is kept in place to provide a setting for a lengthy partisan infomercial. The platforms are denied even that dignity. While they may provide a talking point or two for partisans, anyone who spends much time arguing about them is wasting their time.