The meaning of party platforms Conventions: The documents used to be the principal expression of a party's philosophy and program. These days, few people ever read them.

Sun Journal

August 05, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was the second day of the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York's Madison Square Garden. Delegates backing President Jimmy Carter had just won a crucial test vote on a rules dispute that had been raised by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had been challenging Carter for the nomination.

In an episode that illustrates as well as any the meaning of party platforms in modern American politics, the Carter managers faced the question of whether they could win a similar fight over the platform.

"We don't have to win anything," an ebullient Hamilton Jordan, Carter's closest adviser, told a reporter, "because that platform is going to be forgotten before we ever get out of town."

So that night Kennedy, acting as the spokesman for liberal platform planks on economic policy, delivered what has come to be considered one of the classic convention speeches, ending with these words: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

The convention erupted in an emotional explosion that became the televised highlight of the week. But the platform planks themselves were treated perfunctorily. The Carter managers rejected two of the eight Kennedy had offered -- one calling for a wage-price freeze, another for national health insurance -- but simply swallowed the other six, including one calling for a $12 billion jobs program Carter opposed.

The presiding officer, Speaker of the House Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., called for the "yeas" and "nays," quickly banged his gavel, announced a verdict on each plank and the Democratic Party had a platform.

"They just took it lock, stock and barrel," recalls Robert Shrum, the Kennedy adviser who was the principal writer of the senator's speech. "Tip just gaveled the whole thing through."

But the platform was not, as Hamilton Jordan supposed, totally without meaning because it defined a serious and sharp division between liberals and the moderate conservatives within the party on the approach to the economy. Carter lost badly.

As Shrum says now, "There were real differences between Kennedy and Carter on the economic stuff, and it showed."

Political function

There was a time, a century or more ago, when the documents were the principal expression of a party's philosophy and program.

But now few people ever read them and few candidates feel obliged to heed them. When a reporter asked Lyn C. Nofziger, a close adviser to Ronald Reagan, if the candidate had read the platform the Republicans adopted in 1980, Nofziger broke into laughter and asked: "What do you think?"

But it is also true that platforms perform a political function by exposing the fault lines within a party. And because they perform that function, they often become the center of intense controversy among the activists who attend conventions -- a history likely to be repeated in San Diego this week as Republicans try to define their position on abortion rights.

That is what happened four years ago in Houston, when the controlling cultural conservatives once again adopted the 1984 and 1988 plank barring abortion without exception. The weakness of the moderates within the convention was evident when the platform committee endorsed the plank with so little dissent that the moderates could not mount a floor challenge.

Some analysts pointed to the hard line taken in Houston on abortion and other social issues as the reason President George Bush ran much more weakly among suburban Republicans and women independents than in 1988, contributing to his loss to Bill Clinton.

Direction of party

At many conventions, the platform becomes the major story unless there is still some bit of suspense about the nomination. And even when the platform is not the focus of attention, it can provide some indication of where the party is headed. Some cases in point:

1960: As Republicans gathered in Chicago to nominate Vice President Richard M. Nixon for president, they got word that their presumptive nominee had flown to New York to meet with Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the titular leader of what was then called the "Eastern liberal establishment" in the party.

Rockefeller had tested the waters of the presidential campaign himself, then backed off -- but was withholding his support because of reservations about the platform. He and Nixon closeted themselves for several hours in Rockefeller's lavish townhouse, emerging into the wee hours with a 14-point agreement on the platform that became known as the Compact of Fifth Avenue and ensured liberal backing for Nixon.

But the vice president's more conservative supporters, particularly from the Midwest, were outraged. As John Deardourff, a political consultant with close ties to Rockefeller, recalls, "That was the point at which the true believers thought Nixon had sold the farm."

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