The Republican platform gets its moment in the sun this week. It will be a brief moment. By Friday, it will be back in the political shadows, right alongside most of the other platforms parties have adopted.
This will be a disappointment to Republicans who would like to use the platform to rally like-minded Americans, and to Democrats who would like to use the platform to cast the GOP as out of the mainstream. The reality is that platforms peaked in importance in 1976 when a defeated Ronald Reagan insisted he would campaign only for the party's platform and not for its nominee. And they essentially withered into irrelevance two decades later in 1996 when Republican nominee Robert Dole boasted that he wouldn't waste his time reading that year's document and certainly did not feel bound by any of its provisions.
That doesn't mean that party platforms are unimportant. They are important, but only to party activists, political scientists, and historians, not to any contemporary voter. There is no better document to track the evolution of the political parties and no better way to identify issues that aren't being resolved by the government in Washington. Historically, the platform is where the two parties first thrash out the really big issues that they can't handle in Congress. And the platform is where party insurgents traditionally first make their mark, forcing their views into the platform before they can win the nomination. Often, that is because the party wing that has secured the nomination is willing to concede platform points to mollify the vanquished candidate.
So Richard Nixon emerged from a secret meeting with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, giving Rockefeller and the GOP Eastern wing all it wanted on the platform that year. And President Gerald Ford gave platform victories in 1976 even though they often took the party away from policies Ford was currently implementing such as détente with the Soviet Union. In other cases that year, Ford was defeated by the delegates on planks important to the president. Even though he pleaded with the platform committee to maintain the party's longstanding backing for the Equal Rights Amendment, the delegates went with Reagan's view instead.
The result was the modern high point for the party platform. Reagan's only television commercial for Ford was quite pointedly a commercial for the platform. In case any viewers missed the point, Reagan clutched the two party platforms in his hands the entire commercial, frequently raising them to make a point. "These are the party platforms of the Republicans and the Democrats," said Reagan. "I hope you'll get copies and read them." He dismissed the Democrats for offering "more big government and more taxes," asking, "Do you want more big government? More inflation? I don't think so. Neither does President Ford. He's running on this platform." Almost grudgingly, he closed by asking for votes for Ford.
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who has helped write several GOP platforms, brings an activist's zeal to the task. "A party platform," she insists, "is like a creed." She wrote recently that "most Christians recite their creed over and over again to strengthen their faith in what they believe. A party platform is also like the flag soldiers carry into battle. It's the symbol of what we think is worth our work and sacrifice." Looking back on the 1976 platform, she wrote: "With hindsight, we can see that the real importance of the 1976 convention was the platform," insisting it laid the basis for Reagan's win four years later.
But no nominee since in either party has paid as much attention to his platform. Most have barely tolerated the exercise, though few risked angering the activists by being as openly scornful as Dole was in 1996. That leaves the platform as primarily a historical document to show how the party is evolving and what problems aren't being resolved in Washington.
That was true in the first-ever platform, in 1840, when Democrats defined their party as against almost all spending, against a national bank, and against any efforts by the federal government to restrain slavery and state's rights. Then and for most of the next 60 years, there was no room in the Democratic platform for small issues. (Of course, the early platforms were rarely more than two pages or 2,000 words in length. That is in contrast to unreadable behemoths like the 38,000-word Democratic monstrosity in 1980 or the 41,282-word Republican effort in 2004.) For Democrats, there was no room for anything except slavery, tariffs, reconstruction, and state's rights at the top of the agenda. Republicans, similarly, used their platforms to talk about big things — though they did take a small detour in 1884 to express concern about "sheep husbandry in the United States," no doubt the result of a well-placed lobbyist for the shepherds.
Platforms don't talk much about the easy-to-solve issues; they deal with what is dividing society. Before the Civil War, Democrats fought fiercely for slavery and after the war immediately declared in their 1868 platform that the issue was "settled for all time" so reconstruction should end at once, leaving the South free to resolve "the Negro question" on its own. Republicans, meanwhile, fought for what they called in 1876 the "pacification of the South." And, reliably, in every platform for more than 100 years until the Depression, they championed punitive tariffs and raw protectionism.
Societal changes can be tracked in platforms. Education was never mentioned in early platforms as neither party saw a federal role in education. That started changing for Republicans in 1876 and Democrats in 1908, and today education planks are a big part of both platforms. Similarly, guns were never mentioned in any platform until the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy thrust gun control on the agenda in 1968. Gun control made the 1972 Democratic platform, prompting Republicans to add their backing of the Second Amendment to every platform after 1976.
No issue has proven more resistant to Washington's ways and become a more entrenched part of the platforms than immigration. With the exception of the Depression and World War II years, it has been in almost every platform since the Republicans in 1860 and Democrats in 1876. Republicans supported liberalized immigration until complaining of too many Mongolians in 1876 and Chinese in 1880, calling the Chinese "alien to our civilization." Democrats were more pointed, complaining in 1876 that "liberty-loving" Germans were being knocked out of line by "the coolie trade in Mongolian women." In 1896, Democrats objected to "foreign pauper labor," and in 1908 to "Asiatic immigrants." The debate didn't shift to "illegal immigration" until the 1972 platforms.
Cultural changes also are reflected in the platforms. There was no mention of the importance of marriage in any platform until 1988. Sexual relations and contraceptives made their debut in 1988 for Republicans and 1992 for Democrats. And abortion slowly built to its current top status after the 1973 Supreme Court decision. Republicans were tentative, calling it "one of the most difficult and controversial (issues) of our time" and "undoubtedly a moral and personal issue" that was very "complex." The plank acknowledged that some Republicans "favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand" while others want a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions. Democrats were similarly tentative, coming out against such an amendment, but stating, "We fully recognize the religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject of abortion." Only years later did both parties harden their positions on the issue.
A similar evolution to hardened positions is evident on the question of climate change. Both parties first talked about it in their 1988 platforms, with Republicans concerned about the "degradation of the ozone layer," saying it "poses a health hazard." In 1992, Republicans boasted of spending to combat the threat. In 1996, the GOP for the first time mentioned "scientific uncertainty." By 2008, the party's concern on the issue had vanished into a call for more research while it had become an article of faith and "a national-security crisis" in the Democratic platform.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.