Commentary Magazine


Topic: Republican platform

Dems Turn to Explain a Troubling Platform

Last week Democrats were running riot on the talk shows, gabbing about what they claimed was an extremist Republican platform on social issues like abortion. As I noted at the time, platforms were always meaningless and are as outdated as the political conventions that adopt them. Yet GOP stalwarts were reduced to ineffectual defenses that did little to undo the damage that the symbolic adoption of planks that provided no exceptions to abortion bans did among moderate and independent voters.

This week, the shoe is on the other foot. As soon as the Democratic platform was published, we learned they had banned all mention of God from their manifesto and watered down or eliminated pro-Israel language that had previously been present in past platforms. Their replies to questions about this have been as defensive and poorly received as those given by their GOP counterparts. These twin controversies provide an interesting window into the mindset of both parties. The Republican platform shows that the party is not interested in challenging the views of social conservatives while Democrats are not inclined to treat the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community as being worth worrying about. Even though platform language doesn’t dictate policy (as pro-life advocates know since no Republican president has ever carried out their party’s promises about abortion), what does that tell you about the current state of American politics?

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Last week Democrats were running riot on the talk shows, gabbing about what they claimed was an extremist Republican platform on social issues like abortion. As I noted at the time, platforms were always meaningless and are as outdated as the political conventions that adopt them. Yet GOP stalwarts were reduced to ineffectual defenses that did little to undo the damage that the symbolic adoption of planks that provided no exceptions to abortion bans did among moderate and independent voters.

This week, the shoe is on the other foot. As soon as the Democratic platform was published, we learned they had banned all mention of God from their manifesto and watered down or eliminated pro-Israel language that had previously been present in past platforms. Their replies to questions about this have been as defensive and poorly received as those given by their GOP counterparts. These twin controversies provide an interesting window into the mindset of both parties. The Republican platform shows that the party is not interested in challenging the views of social conservatives while Democrats are not inclined to treat the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community as being worth worrying about. Even though platform language doesn’t dictate policy (as pro-life advocates know since no Republican president has ever carried out their party’s promises about abortion), what does that tell you about the current state of American politics?

Democrats spent the day backpedaling and, taking a page from the book of party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, fibbing furiously about getting AIPAC to sanction the platform. Nobody believed these assertions, leaving pro-Israel Democrats like Alan Dershowitz saying the decision was “deeply troubling” since “I don’t think it is a good thing that the Republican platform seems to be more pro-Israel than the Democratic platform.”

The divide between the two parties on social issues is well established and it is hardly surprising that Republicans would mollify conservatives in their document while Democrats turned their convention’s first night into a celebration of abortion as well as other liberal positions on social issues.

Dershowitz’s conscience may be eased by the reported decision of the party to reinstate the more pro-Israel text that had been in the 2008 platform. But the willingness of the Democrats to deliver a symbolic slight to the pro-Israel community at the very moment when they are trying so hard to stop Jewish voters from deserting President Obama was still telling. If the dropping of language supporting Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital and the designation of the country as America’s most important ally in the region was done at the behest of the White House that gives cold comfort to those who worry about what a second Obama administration will mean for Israel. More important, at this point such a move is a blow to the credibility of the election-year Jewish charm offensive the administration has been pursuing.

It is true that no Republican president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital any more than Obama has done. But the current administration has also done more to undermine Israel’s claim to the city than any predecessor. It has made an issue about the right of Jews to live in decades-old Jewish neighborhoods and considered housing starts there as an insult to Vice President Biden. Under Obama, Jerusalem has been treated as being no different from the most remote West Bank hilltop settlement. That gives extra importance to the platform language of the president’s party.

Even if we put this down as mere symbolism or believe the Democrats backtracking will silence their critics, it will provide some serious food for thought for undecided voters as we head down the homestretch of the presidential campaign. While the stands of the parties on social issues was never in doubt, the Democrats have just given wavering pro-Israel Jews one more reason to think about not voting for President Obama.

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Platforms Are Meaningless Echo of the Past

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.

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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.

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