Walk the Plank

At the RPT Convention this week, much of the focus was on some controversial platform planks surrounding immigration, medical marijuana, and gay issues.  There were plenty of other resolutions available for discussion in the platform, but none of them made it to the floor for debate.  By the time a few resolutions had gone through the floor process, many delegates were tired and weary and ready to leave.  That is why the motion to end debate and vote on the platform was passed by over half of the body.  However, I’m not here to talk about the events that happened during the platform debate.  Others paid more attention to that, and were far more involved, and I’ll link them below as I locate their write-ups.  What I want to do is talk about what a platform is, and what it does.

A party platform is supposed to consist of the principles and values of a political party.  Ideally, it enumerates the things party members believe, and allows them to coalesce around ideas when vetting candidates or advocating policy.  The platform also sends signals to candidates who wish to run on a party label what the priorities of the body are.

But since a platform is created by a closed group of party members (in the RPT’s case, the Platform Committees and the delegates in attendance at convention) there is often a lot of compromise involved.  Nobody involved in a platform discussion gets everything they want.

Long hours and long days went into the creation of the RPT 2014 Platform.  Committees and sub-committees reviewed hundreds of proposals for altering the platform, on a host of subjects.  Why so many?  Well, considering the RPT Platform is over 30 pages (Arizona’s is 7 pages long) and covers many topics in depth, it isn’t surprising it takes nearly all of the six days allotted during convention to get it done.

And in Texas, Republicans are passionate about the platform.  They treat it with the seriousness and energy of pending legislation.  Alliances are formed, deals struck, and friendships created (and destroyed) over the wording of particular passages within it.  And sometimes the language gets annoyingly divisive.  ‘RINO’  ‘Invasion’ ‘Extremist’ ‘Attack’ ‘Selling Out’ ‘Watering Down’ – these are all terms I heard regarding platform issues this year.

But here’s the thing.  As Sarah Rumpf points out at Breitbart,

‘None of the websites for the current statewide Republican candidates link to or quote from any part of the RPT platform. Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for Governor, lists ten core issues with a short narrative description, Attorney General candidate Ken Paxton discusses eleven, and Agriculture Commissioner candidate Sid Miller has just six short blurbs. Land Commissioner candidate George P. Bush’s website focuses on education, energy and veterans’ issues. Dan Patrick’s website for his Lieutenant Governor campaign includes a pledge to take action on seven issues, such as cutting wasteful government and reforming education and passing school choice.’

So if the candidates, who are supposed to be standard-bearers advancing the positions of the party, aren’t even bothering to refer to the platform in their campaign websites, are they, once elected, pushing legislation that does so?  Well, some might.  However, with the number of bills that get filed in the Texas Legislature every session, hopes of any one bill passing that originated with the platform are rather slim.

Well, if the candidates aren’t using the platform as a campaign tool, is there some other use for it?  Could it be used to, say, hold candidates accountable?  Is it possible to expel candidates who do not adhere to the platform, or strip them of their party affiliation?  Actually, no.  Not only is there no enforcement mechanism, but the platform changes every two years of necessity.  A candidate who might agree with something in the platform in 2014 could easily find himself out of phase with it in 2016, just because of committee turnover and an emphasis on the hot-button issues we will be facing in two years’ time.

So then, are other Republican leaders using the platform to win votes and increase identification with the party?  Hardly.  Block-walkers and phone bank operatives certainly aren’t passing out or quoting portions of the RPT platform in order to appeal to voters.  Not only is that impractical, but in the sound-bite age, it’s counter-productive.  Good candidates and campaign operatives distill their message down to a few points that resonate with the people they’re trying to reach.  The platform isn’t the document that does that.

All right, so if candidates and campaign workers aren’t using the platform, are the people who created it using it to talk about what it is to be a Republican?  Perhaps a few are.  But for the most part, the people who vote on the platform don’t go to the committee meetings where it is discussed and debated.  They show up on the day of the vote with (hopefully) a copy in hand to which to refer, and vote on whatever comes before them from the floor of the convention.  And when the document is passed, they may, if they’re really interested, bring their copy home with them to toss into a drawer as a reminder.

You know who DOES pay attention to the platform?  Democrat campaign operatives and reporters.  Just let that sink in for a moment.  Those types LOVE to comb over the platform, looking for any way to misconstrue, twist, misrepresent, and sometimes quote outright, portions of the platform that further the narrative: Republicans are hateful, crochety, out-of-touch, bigoted, and racist.  The platform is a biennial GIFT to them, a delicious opportunity every two years to prove over and over how horrible Republicans are.  Is it true?  The more proper question is ‘DOES THAT MATTER?’  They own the media, and they drive narratives all the time.  They damage the Republican brand relentlessly, and we spend all of our time playing defense.  ‘Nuh-uh, the platform doesn’t say that!’ we cry.  And no one is listening.

I understand the passion behind the hot platform issues this year.  Reparative therapy?  That plank was added as a reaction to lawsuits filed against practitioners of that therapy.  It’s an attempt to build a defense against similar lawsuits, not an advocacy that all gays need to submit to said therapy.  Immigration?  Just look at the recent news stories about packed detention centers in border areas, and you can easily understand a heavy focus on border security, coupled with a low tolerance for any sort of guest worker program, and the word ‘amnesty’ being thrown around like a club.  But as clearly as I understand the passion behind these positions, I also clearly see that regardless of the language used, there is no upside in having them in the platform.  Is a Texas platform going to affect legislation on the national level?  Unlikely.  Are some tough-sounding statements going to prevent border crossings, or force this administration to enforce the laws?  Hardly.  And for all the agony and energy surrounding the platform fight, the platform is NOT legislation.  In fact, I’ve often seen more energy around getting specific wording into the platform than I’ve seen in getting actual legislation passed.  That’s not only backwards, it’s counterproductive.

So why do we do it?  What’s the point?  Does it help us win elections?  Does it help us pass better laws, and repeal bad ones?  Does it get us more freedom?  Does it clearly and unambiguously articulate what we stand for?

I think not.

I think Republicans are playing defense with a platform that is 30+ pages.  I think they believe that putting something in the platform (or keeping it out) is actually accomplishing something in the short run.  I think they believe this is ‘doing something’, and that after passing the platform they can go home and feel as though they did something meaningful.  I think it’s a divisive process, rather than an opportunity for vigorous debate, in a time when we really need to focus on winning strategic races in 2014 and building a powerful national network for electing our candidate in 2016.

I heard a lot of talk during convention about cutting the platform drastically, and attempting to replace it with a short list of principles.  I also know that won’t happen unless people stop focusing on small portions of the platform and push for a smarter, easy-to-sell, articulate, and useful document.  An aggressive platform would be broad, populist, appealing to a wide number of people who actually agree with us (but who have been poisoned against the brand) and clear about what Republicans stand for.

It would also focus on defeating Democrats.

UPDATE: Jon Stewart Reaction to Reparative Therapy – how TXGOP looks to a lot of America

UPDATE: Chairman Munisteri Speaks Out on the Platform

UPDATE: TXGOP Plaform Reform Project

RLC Expresses Concern Over GOP Platform