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The Corncob Pipe of Politics

The Democratic Party’s platform committee approved a whopping 54-page draft document last Saturday in Pittsburgh. (That’s up 15 pages from the 2004 platform). The Republicans won’t draft their platform until just prior to the GOP convention in Minneapolis, so it stands to be seen how the new platform will stack up to the 2004 document, which topped 41,000 words and began with a triple homage to Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, and George W. Bush.

Problem is, nobody seems to care. Today, campaigns have tight grasps on platforms, meaning they’re mostly summaries of nominees’ views, with some language to placate special interests or party factions. Consequently, platforms have grown longer and of less interest to the public. “They are relics of the past like corncob pipes and button shoes,” says David King of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Now the platforms are focused on the presidency, not so much broad issues that are defined against what the broad issues of the other party.” But there was a time when platforms divided parties, riled up convention delegates, and stirred public interest. Here is a review of the party platform’s colorful history.


-- A platform, adopted every four years at a party’s convention, is a manifesto of a party’s stances on issues. A stance on a particular issue is called a plank. And though these planks do not mandate how party representatives must act, they establish some guidelines. “They are promises that elected officials are expected to redeem, and when they don’t, [members of] the media and the other party will point out the distinction between promises and performance,” says Stephen Wayne, political science professor at Georgetown University and author of The Road to the White House.


-- Platforms arose in the mid-19th century, when parties began hosting national conventions. Presidential nominees and convention delegates were selected by party bigwigs, and often, nominations were hashed out at conventions. Similarly, platforms generated raucous debates among party leaders, mostly from the local or state level, who controlled their creation.

-- One of the most notable early platform debates occurred at the 1860 Democratic convention. Delegates met in Charleston, South Carolina, and were so split on the issue of slavery that Southern representatives walked out before a candidate could be nominated. A second convention had to be held in Baltimore to select a nominee.

-- In 1948, a platform debate again split the Democrats, when the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond, refused to adopt a civil rights platform. Another schism occurred in 1968, when debate raged over a “peace plank,” supported by delegates opposed to U.S. policy in Vietnam. Party leaders tried to usher the debate to a late-night slot, but plank supporters protested, and it was held during the day. The vicious plank argument was televised nationwide as anti-war riots boiled outside the convention’s doors.

-- After the 1968 public embarrassment, the Democrats reformed their nomination and convention processes. These reforms seeped over to the GOP in the mid-1970s, and because of the explosion of broadcast media, which has made campaigns more visible and candidate-centric, and a shift toward cohesion in both parties, platforms today are mostly about image. “Parties don’t want voters to think that party supporters are not united behind the candidate,” says Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

-- Since the shift, there have still been some notable platform disputes. In 1984, then-House whip and platform committee chair Trent Lott and other Republicans refused to budge on a plank against tax increases, even as the Reagan administration pushed for softer language on the issue. However, nominees are unlikely to do anything more than “distance themselves from planks,” said David Karol, a Berkeley political science assistant professor, because they do not want to appear weak.

--A link to a database of party platforms is here, if you’re crazy enough to want to read them. I recommend counting the number of times Bush’s name appears in the GOP’s 2004 document.


-- DEMOCRATS: In the months leading up to the convention, the party’s platform drafting committee holds some public hearings and accepts written plank proposals. Members also engage in discussions with party insiders. The committee then drafts a document and sends it to the full platform committee--this year, it numbers 186--which adopts the draft several weeks before the convention. At the convention, the platform is ratified on the floor. And though committees are comprised of party leaders, the entire effort is directed carefully by the nominee and his or her aides. (See here for a DNC guide to the process.)

--REPUBLICANS: Traditionally, the GOP has held fewer public hearings and solicited fewer proposals from party members and activist groups. A platform committee, usually with about 110 members, engages in discussions, mostly behind closed doors, and meets the week prior to the convention to draft. The platform is then ratified on the floor. In 2004, conservative activists criticized the Bush campaign for dominating the process so heavily that there was little room for plank lobbying. Committee members’ names were not released, prompting conservative columnist Robert Novak to opine that, “the process fits the Bush White House’s authoritarian aura.” Still, the convention was a success, filled with all the usual theatrics and unaffected by distracting platform arguments.


-- WHO’S WHO: The Democrats’ drafting committee is chaired by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. The principal author, however, is Karen Kornbluh, Obama’s policy director. The full platform committee is headed by National Platform Director Michael Yaki, an Obama aide and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Both committees are comprised of others close to the Obama camp, as well as Hillary Clinton supporters. The GOP platform committee is co-chaired by North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and California Congressman Kevin McCarthy. The executive director of the committee is Stephen Duffield, a former aide to John McCain’s fellow senator from Arizona, John Kyl.

-- ENGAGEMENT: Both parties introduced new public outreach efforts in writing their platforms. The Democrats held caucus-style meetings around the country and included sidebar statements from average Americans in the platform draft. The GOP created a website through which anyone could submit plank proposals. Experts generally agree, however, that these efforts won’t affect the platforms substantively. “The more outlets you provide, the more people who think that they matter, and that helps you in the general election,” Georgetown’s Wayne said.

-- COMPROMISES: The Democrats’ draft includes a few compromise elements. Clinton’s camp managed to get the phrase “[the party is] united around a commitment to provide every American access to affordable, comprehensive health care” into the draft--

language that embraces Clinton’s support for universal health care. A section on gender equality was also added, thanks to lobbying by Clinton supporters. Lastly, pro-life Democrats influenced language supporting a reduction in the number of abortions. (For more on that fight, click here.)

On the GOP side, there could be disputes between McCain and the party since he diverges from the Republican mainstream on some issues, including ANWR and stem cell research. But don’t expect to hear much about them. “There is sufficient anxiety [within the party] to move in the direction of trying to quell a platform debate before it reaches the convention,” said Timothy McCarthy of the Kennedy School. Platforms, after all, no longer reflect tense debate about a party’s direction; they’re campaign ads.

Seyward Darby is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. 

By Seyward Darby