Jumping ship: The party platforms no one stands on anymore

In the furor over Todd Akin’s inventive understanding of biology, we should not lose sight of another matter. His position on abortion--that the victim of rape should be compelled to bear her rapist’s child--has been the official position of the Republican Party for more than thirty years.

Indeed, the language of the GOP platform--all but certain to be adopted in Tampa next week--goes further. It declares that: "Faithful to the 'self-evident' truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

Taken together with its support for “a human life amendment to the Constitution,” and for “legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children," its platform calls for a ban on all abortions--even to save the life of the mother.

So why has this decades-long position triggered comparatively little political furor?

It’s simple: Nobody takes the platform of a political party seriously any longer. And that is one of the most striking, if all but ignored, changes in American political life.

For most of our history, conventions were held not only to nominate candidates, but also to debate and define what the parties stood for. The platform was a serious declaration of purpose, and the fights were hugely consequential. Candidates accepted not only their party’s nomination, but the platform as well.

Declaring the spread of slavery “a crime against humanity”, the 1860 Republican platform defined the stakes of Lincoln’s candidacy. (The party also called on the federal government to support a railroad to the Pacific, which today’s GOP would no doubt label “socialist.”)

The fight “free silver” at the 1896 Democratic convention led directly to the nomination of William Jennings Bryan, and gave a populist dimension to the party. The 1924 battles over Prohibition and immigration tied Democrats in knots; it took 103 ballots to nominate its doomed candidate for President.

Then, in 1948, the Democratic Party’s embrace of a strong civil rights plank led to walkouts and the third party states. In fact, the segregationist candidacy of South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond carried four Southern states.

In 1964, the Republican convention’s failure to denounce extremism (including the radically right-wing John Birch Society) was a key reason why moderates and liberals (including Michigan Gov. George Romney) refused to back the candidacy of Barry Goldwater.

In 1968, the fight over the Vietnam War was both a symbol and cause of the deeply divided Democratic Party.

And today? The platform is largely regarded as a way to placate the more ideologically-fervent constituencies, without really binding the nominees to much of anything. Mitt Romney backs an exception for abortion in the case of rape, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, has recently adopted the same position. Four years ago, John McCain’s campaign made an effort to put that exemption into the platform, and then more or less shrugged off the issue.

As we’ve seen, the platform struggles go beyond abortion. In 1996, GOP nominee Bob Dole publicly rejected the platform plank that called for an end to “birthright citizenship” for the children of illegal immigrants. Back in 1980, Jimmy Carter’s campaign allowed into the platform planks calling for increased government spending on behalf of “full employment” as a sop to the vanquished backers of Ted Kennedy.

Why does the party platform mean so little these days? For the same reason conventions don’t nominate candidates anymore. Just as candidates for president no longer emerge from those infamous smoke-filled rooms, but spend two years traipsing across the country, the President and the party leaders in Congress argue their views in front of the whole nation. Even when a candidate tries to fudge an issue--could you give us a clue about just what loopholes you intend to close, Rep. Ryan?--there’s comparatively little need for a platform to set down what a party stands for. Anyone who cannot see the exceptionally clear divisions between Obama and Romney has simply been living off the grid.

I confess to a sense of loss at the decline of platform fights. I would have loved to have been in the galleries or the floor when a chant of “Free and Unlimited Coinage of Silver at Sixteen-to-One!” erupted from the hall.

Of course, I’m still waiting for the chance to analyze potential vote-switches as a second-ballot draws near.

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