A Splintered Unity Platform

Election '04

While the base is conservative and the administration is drifting so far into the outer reaches of ideological space that they're red-shifting from the Doppler effect, the prime-time speaker lineup is anomalously moderate – so the RNC must run a delicate tight-wire act to make it seem like the principles in play aren't mutually exclusive. But as the Republicans get ready to take their turn at presenting party unity in New York, the GOP's moderate malcontents made themselves known – and were all but ignored by the leadership – at the Republican Platform Committee meetings that got under way this morning in the cavernously empty Javits Center. The Log Cabin Republicans, the gay organization that the RNC tries to ward off like the evil eye, along with the Republicans for Choice, hatched a plan to either strike or soften language in the platform that endorses constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and abortion. They also wanted to offer a "Party Unity Plank" that says republicans can agree to disagree on such sensitive topics.

A Unity Plank would seem like a no-brainer for a party that, at every turn, is claiming to be unified. Here's what it said:


"We recognize that the Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in the party's platform. This is particularly the case with regard to those planks dealing with abortion, family planning, and gay and lesbian issues. The Republican Party welcomes all people on all sides of these complex issues and encourages their active participation as we work together on those issues on which we agree."
Except that the Republican Party apparently does not welcome people on all sides of these complex issues, because that means infringing the monopoly of social conservatives. Like former Reagan operative and ultra-conservative Gary Bauer, whose latest specialization has been targeting moderate Republicans in their own primaries – Bauer was involved in the Patrick Toomey's right-side ambush of Arlen Specter – and who was sitting in the audience as the moderates' insurgency ran aground by 10:00 am.

The morning had been planned as a beachhead. The subcommittee on "Protecting our Families" is the locus of the platform's pro-life and anti-gay language, and that's where the moderates hoped to make their changes. "But they stacked the subcommittee against us," complained Anne Stone, the Chair of the Republicans for Choice. "There are two members from each state delegation to the convention on the platform committee. Those are then assigned to the various subcommittees. They waited until the last minute to make those assignments." This tactic, she explained, prevented them from finding a sympathetic committee member who could introduce their amendments. All their known allies were – "big surprise!" Stone said – assigned to other subcommittees.

The Log Cabin and Republicans for Choice see this in conspiratorial terms. They point out that the entire platform committee process has been condensed to two days (in past years it has run twice as long); that the draft platform was released only the night before when it's usually available for weeks; that the scheduling details and appointments were delayed and even kept secret until the last minute. "Usually we have lead time for lobbying," said Stone. This time, they've been "kept in the dark."

Stone has experience with this kind of maneuvering. In 2000, the Republicans for Choice managed to get the pro-life constitutional amendment language removed for about 15 minutes, until Henry Hyde used a procedural move to revisit the issue and restore it.

This time, the entire Protect Our Families subcommittee meeting went by without even an opportunity for Stone or her Log Cabin collaborators to propose their language. Former RNC Chairman and current Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, whose chairmanship itself was perceived as a signal that the RNC was not interested in compromise with the moderates, sailed through the draft, re-affirming it quickly, despite knowing there were people in the audience who wanted to be heard. "I talk slow, and move fast," Barbour later said to colleagues.

Barbour and the committee did, however, have time to add a few more barbs to the anti-gay language. Cecelia Levantino from New Mexico introduced an amendment that inserted the following sentences to the Protecting Marriage section:
"And we believe that neither federal nor state judges and bureaucrats should force states to recognize other living arrangements as equivalent to marriage. We believe, and the Social Sciences confirms (sic) that the well-being of children is best accomplished in the environment of the home , nurtured by their mother and father anchored by the bonds of marriage. We further believe that legal recognition and the accompanying benefits afforded couples should be preserved for that unique and special union of one man and one woman which has historically been called marriage."
Christopher Barron, the Policy Director for the Log Cabin Republicans, was furious. "If we can't get anywhere at the subcommittee," he said outside in the hall, "we'll take it to the full committee." (After the subcommittees wrap up, they re-convene as one unit, at which there will be a second chance to address the platform planks.) "And if that doesn't work, we'll take it to the floor of the convention." Something like that hasn't happened in a long time, but it sure would make things interesting. A majority of signatures from six states is needed to raise an issue from the floor. "It would be an uphill battle," Barron admitted, "but we'll try."

This, of course, is the last thing the RNC wants, because it would highlight what they're trying to hide by giving their loyal moderates the run-around – that the party's wearing a Janus-face mask as it tries to appeal to the center with its softy convention lineup while also throwing red meat to the conservative base by strengthening the crudest parts of the platform.

It's a rough example of what everyone seems to agree is Karl Rove's genius: targeted messaging. Give each group what they want to hear. Tell one story on television and another in the mail. Make the soccer moms feel fuzzy and raise your hands to heaven for the evangelicals. We can have it both ways.

Except that the moderate Republicans think the party can't have it both ways.

"The politics of exclusion doesn't resonate with most voters," Barron said. "That's why they're not putting Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer on stage next week. They scare people." I pointed out that, as it's written now, the Republican platform excludes the stated opinions of almost every prime-time speaker at the convention, including Dick Cheney, who only yesterday restated his endorsement of the states' rights solution of the Defense of Marriage Act. Barron agreed, calling the platform an "insult to Pataki, Giuliani, and Schwarzenegger, whose long standing records of tolerance on gay and lesbian issues are not reflected."

It's also an insult to the voters. Because it looks like the stage at Madison Square Garden is being set for another three-card monte, a repeat of that cynical game of Presidential bait and switch from four years ago that takes the electorate as the rube. Recall 2000, how Bush the candidate – newly minted as a compassionate conservative, a uniter, a man who would leave no child behind – transformed into Bush the President, barely (if at all) elected, who then launched an armada of aggressively conservative moves from the get-go. The same process is in motion.
Which reminds me that when I talked with Professor Thomas Patterson at the Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Policy at Harvard, and he told me that the national party conventions, despite what the bored commentators and press think, are still important functions because, despite their flaws, they give the most direct, undiluted glimpse into what each candidate's administration would be like, that actually seemed reasonable – until I looked at the lineup at the RNC, which bears no relationship to the present or any future Bush administration.

The Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Choice would agree about this disconnect – except they would argue that the convention speakers are not anomalies, but rather represent the future of the party. When I asked Barron what he felt about a party whose leadership is so wedded to cultural conservatism that the three reasonable sentences of his Unity Plank – which says nothing more than there's room for discussion – scared the platform committee shitless, his response was a, Yes .. . but. What Barron wants is for the Republican party to cast off the conservative yoke and return to its roots of inclusion and tolerance. But what if they don't want you, I asked. "They're out of touch," he said, "And that's part of the reason we're putting up a fight."

Janet McElligot, a polyglot intelligence specialist and lifetime Republican who worked in George H. W. Bush's White House staff and is affiliated with Republicans for Choice, agrees. "Changing this platform is vital to the party," she said. "We're the tent. We're the poles and the stakes keeping it up." Moderates like her, she said, can help the Republican Party swing back to the center.

The chances of that happening seem slim – probably not for the next few decades and certainly not by the next Monday. When the full committee convened in the afternoon – after an uncharacteristic 4-hour Republican siesta – the moderates' demand for more inclusive language on family planning and gay rights was barely addressed. Delegates who said they would question the two offending Protect Our Families planks chickened out, and the committee tried to satisfy the moderates (who were acknowledged as a key voting block) with a tepid compromise. A Pro-Choice delegate proposed adding the phrase "open door" and turning an existing line into a vague pledge to "respect and accept" divergent views within the party – and even that was vocally opposed. In the end, the Ayes had it – 74 to 18 – but those four little words were hardly a victory.

Barron was outraged. He may still try to take the issue to the floor of the convention. "We're going to let people know about this." And as McElligot sees it, this means trouble for Bush. "If we lose in the platform fight, Bush loses in the election," she said, suggesting that moderates are ready to bolt. "The feeling among our members is changing. We're not voting blind. And it will be a shock come November when we pull a different lever."

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