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Party Platforms Are Not Just Meaningless Fluffery

Someone once defined a “national political party” as “a group of people who meet once every four years to nominate someone for president.” While that is the main purpose of the quadrennial party meetings, it is not their only responsibility. Political conventions are also expected to produce campaign platforms that spell out what the parties stand for and where they intend to take the nation.

[IMGCAP(1)]It has been fashionable in this age of political cynicism to dismiss party platforms as meaningless fluffery — wish lists that promise all things to all people, with little thought given to what can realistically be delivered. When former Sen. Bob Dole (Kan), the 1996 GOP presidential nominee, was asked by the press about a platform plank that seemed at odds with his position, he admitted he hadn’t bothered to read the platform and doubted he would have time to do so. Why, then, should voters pay any attention to what a party claims to stand for in its statement of principles and promises?

As someone who played minor staff roles on platform committees at three Republican conventions (1976, 1992 and 1996), I disagree with this conventional cynicism (although the silly hats that some convention delegates wear give the term “conventional wisdom” an oxymoronic twist). Based on my observations of what delegates pour into drafting a platform and the document’s impact on candidates and the political system, I would argue that platforms still do matter (even though they are nothing to set your watch by).

Only a C-SPAN junkie can appreciate how much work goes into crafting a platform, beginning months before a convention. In addition to the formal hearings conducted by the Democrats’ platform drafting committee, some 1,600 listening sessions were held this year in communities across the country to solicit ideas for the platform. (Both parties also solicited suggestions via the Web.) The draft document was then adopted by the full, 186-member Democratic platform committee on Aug. 9 in Pittsburgh. The Democratic convention then adopted the platform by voice vote last Monday afternoon. The Republican platform committee, consisting of one male and one female delegate from each state and territory, met last week in Minneapolis to finalize its draft document.

The Republican platform week is a microcosm of the Congressional committee process, with subcommittee hearings and drafting sessions, followed by full committee debates and amendments. It was not unusual in the past for the GOP drafting sessions to undergo unexpected twists and turns as the process took on a life of its own and sometimes strayed from the positions of the presumptive nominee. This in turn would trigger strategic timeouts as the candidate’s representatives and key platform committee players huddled behind closed doors to iron out their differences. Sometimes compromises were struck. At other times differences were simply papered over.

It never ceased to amaze me how these dedicated delegates gave up not just one, but two weeks to work on the platform and then participate in full convention floor activities — some using most of their annual vacation time for the sake of the party. The spirited debates, wrangling over proper wording, and intricate trade-offs impressed me with how seriously platform committee members viewed their responsibilities. Many had obviously done their homework, studying the issues and preparing amendments on their particular causes. They wanted to make some contribution to the future course of the party and country and be a small part of history.

The fact that platform committees usually meet the deadline for getting the final document to the printer for timely distribution to delegates on opening day is a clear indication of committee members’ overriding interest in bringing the party together on unifying themes and goals. Watching fellow platform committee members circulating copies of the final document for each others’ autographs reminded me of high school seniors collecting friends’ inscriptions in their yearbooks — a happy confluence of pride and friendship.

Convention floor fights over platform planks are, for the most part, a thing of the past given the necessity to keep the program on track for prime-time TV appearances by major party figures, not to mention the critical nominating speeches, call of the states and acceptance speeches.

Nowadays, party platforms are adopted in the afternoon hours leading up to the opening night’s festivities, with oral summaries of the platform read prior to the formal vote on adoption. Intricate rules now make it nearly impossible for floor amendments to be offered, but the convention chairman’s parliamentary staff fully prepares for handling such contingencies, with friendly delegates primed to offer the appropriate motions to expedite disposition of any challenges.

As to whether platforms leave any noticeable trace once the confetti is swept from the convention floor, the answer is “yes.” The party’s policy positions become part of the candidates’ debates and news coverage of their differences. Moreover, the newly elected president includes proposals from the platform in his legislative messages to Capitol Hill, and Members of Congress sometimes take it upon themselves to draft bills to translate platform planks into laws.

Elected officials appreciate the need to carry out the will of their party’s base as reflected in its platform (though obviously not everything is feasible). As former President Harry Truman put it in his memoirs, “To me, party platforms are contracts with the people.” Elections are about deciding whether to renew those contracts based on past performance and the newly negotiated terms hammered out at the conventions. Which bottom line will you sign?

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.