The Well-Tempered GOP Platform
This year, the traditional pre-convention fight didn't happen
Aug 7, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 44 • By TUCKER CARLSON
CATHIE ADAMS is one of the people who decide what the Republican party believes. Adams, who is from Dallas, is a delegate to the GOP platform committee. She has been to two previous Republican conventions, and she came to Philadelphia last week eager to meet with other members of her subcommittee and begin hashing out the details of the "conservation, agriculture and natural resources" section of the platform.
Adams arrived at the meeting Friday morning ready to work. She expected to spend all day tweaking and improving the draft platform, voting on amendments, debating ideas with fellow delegates. Instead, she and her group were informed that their deliberations were to be completed by noon.
The whole thing was a bit confusing. Like the other delegates, Adams had not received a copy of the platform until the evening before, leaving barely enough time to read it, much less consider its specifics. (Reporters, by contrast, were given copies of the platform hours earlier on the condition they not tell delegates what was in it.) Adams began to suspect that the Bush campaign wasn't very interested in hearing her opinions on conservation, agriculture, and natural resources. "Rather than recognizing the process as a reflection of the grassroots," Adams says carefully, "there is more emphasis on reflecting Gov. Bush's positions."
And the positions of some of his supporters. Toward the end of the Friday morning meeting, one of the delegates on the subcommittee, a man from Alaska, offered an amendment that would affect the plank that calls for the construction of a nationwide high-speed passenger rail service, something that, in case you didn't know, the Republican party officially supports. Suddenly, as from nowhere, Tommy Thompson appeared in the room. Thompson is the governor of Wisconsin and the man George W. Bush selected to run the platform hearings. He is also, as Adams discovered, the chairman of Amtrak, and therefore someone with a keen interest in railroad policy. Thompson walked over to the delegate from Alaska and instructed him to make certain the word "national" stayed in the platform -- as in a "national high-speed passenger railroad system." Adams, who was sitting one seat away, says it didn't matter one way or the other to the Alaskan. "He said, 'I don't care if you want to call it 'global.'" So "national" it was.
Cathie Adams wasn't impressed by the exchange. She sounds dispirited by her experience on the platform committee generally. Some delegates come to political conventions for the parties. There are others, however, who come because they want to participate in running their party. These are the ones who are apt to like politics because of the ideas. They tend to be ideologues, true believers -- in other words, troublemakers. The Bush campaign has tried hard to keep them under control.
This year's platform hearings lasted two days, rather than the traditional four. Party officials refer to these and other changes as "streamlining," and say that many of them were designed to save the time and money of delegates, who must pay their own way to the convention. This may be true. It is also convenient. A shortened platform process left little time for abortion activists on both sides to make embarrassing, televised scenes over the platform language. The Republican party did hold a platform hearing in June where there was limited debate about abortion. But it was in Billings, Montana, on a Friday. Very few people came, and there was almost no news coverage of it. "There were a lot of elk there," chuckles a Bush staffer. Meanwhile, the party, under the firm and vigorous guidance of the Bush campaign, set about writing a new platform. The result is the kindest, gentlest statement of Republican dogma in memory, maybe in history. There is not a word about Monica Lewinsky or Buddhist temple fund-raising, not even a single direct reference to Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Many of the policy positions are similar to earlier versions, though some of the more controversial and unlikely ones have been removed. "We don't shut down or de-fund any federal agencies," explains one Republican official proudly.
It is the tone of the document that has changed most dramatically. The 1996 platform launched an attack on the opposition in the third line of the preamble ("The Clinton administration has proven unequal to the heritage of our past, the promise of our times, and the character of the American people") and became progressively more bellicose from there. It portrayed Bob Dole as a scarred warrior locked in mortal combat with Evil -- "a man who knew battle and so loves peace, a man who lives bravely and so walks humbly with his God and his fellow citizens. We walk with him now as he joins one more battle, every bit as crucial for our country's future as was the crusade in which he served." The language was stirring, if a bit over the top. (The '96 election was as "crucial" as World War II?) It was also about as sunny as Dole himself.
The new platform is nothing like that. It opens on the perkiest possible note, and sustains it. "Our commitment to the nation's economic growth," the first paragraph declares, "is an affirmation of the real riches of our country: the works of compassion that link home to home, community to community, hand to hand." Compassion. Communities. Hands. It's all there. It could be a Bush speech.
The Bush campaign believes that this sort of rhetoric is more popular with the voting public than the old, mean kind. It probably is. But it has done nothing to calm abortion activists, who back in the "family and community" subcommittee room in Philadelphia are spending their allotted hour Friday morning arguing over whether the current platform should remain pro-life.
A couple of pro-choice delegates make their case that it should not. Why does the platform have to mention abortion at all? asks one. "Why are we afraid of being inclusive?" wonders another. Representative Henry Hyde counters with an eloquent explanation of why it should. A vote is taken. By a count of 11 to 3, the pro-life language stays.
And then the raging debate is over. Most of the reporters in the room relocate to the hallway outside, where Ann Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, is dispensing sound bites. GOP platform hearings are what Stone lives for. Four years ago, the week before the convention in San Diego, she and Gary Bauer staged a kind of mock debate for the benefit of bored journalists. This year, Bauer is nowhere in sight. "I think he's coming here next week to do some commentary on FOX," explains Richard Lessner, a former aide. "That's his role at the convention."
Stone shows no sign of missing her sparring partner. "Outrageous, just outrageous," she barks as cameras roll. The fight over the abortion plank, she tells reporters, is far from over. Indeed, she implies, she and her allies may take their cause all the way to the floor of the convention.
Stone is almost certainly bluffing. In private, she makes it clear that she considers the Bush campaign sympathetic to many of her aims. "Bush had people appointed to the platform who are pro-choice, several of them. It was intentional." In fact, Stone says, many of the people she talks to on the Bush campaign are pro-choice. For the last week, she boasts, "I've talked to Tommy Thompson several times a day," mostly about "creativity in approaching the subject."
It's not clear exactly what Stone means by this, since she won't say. But it is clear that the Bush campaign has gone out of its way to solicit the opinions of Stone and other prochoicers. And it is obvious that everyone involved gets along well. "There's a lot of issues that prochoice women can feel very, very good about in this platform," Tommy Thompson told CNN the day before the hearing. "And I feel very good about it."
According to Stone, she and the Bush campaign have at least one thing in common: Both have disdain for organized pro-lifers. "We've been told time and again by the Bush people that we are much easier to deal with," Stone says with pride.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.