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 As I noted at the time, platforms were always meaningless and are as outdated as the political conventions that adopt them.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?
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.