FrontPage | 4.5.12
By Alan W. Dowd
As Republicans start to coalesce around Mitt Romney—he’s received endorsements from George H.W. Bush, Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan in recent days—the surprisingly lengthy and competitive primary season looks to be nearing an end. The next challenge is to build a winning platform—one that motivates the conservative faithful and attracts new voters. To find the planks for such a platform, GOP leaders would do well to draw from ideas that have been tested and proven. A survey of winning platforms from turning-point years in American history offers plenty of inspiration and guidance.
One caveat: Platforms are less important today than they used to be. While in the past, presidential candidates tended to reflect the party’s stances, modern presidential candidates tend to shape the party’s stances.
That said, platforms are still important in that they reveal what a party and its standard-bearer believe. In rummaging through winning GOP platforms dating back to 1860, a handful of large, enduring, recurring themes emerge.
Economic Freedom over Statism
The winning platforms of the past emphasize the importance freedom—and especially freedom from onerous and confiscatory taxation.
The 1924 platform, for instance, called for “progressive reduction of taxes of all the people.”
Parts of the 1952 platform could be used in the 2012 platform verbatim: “The administration has praised free enterprise while actually wrecking it. Here a little, there a little, year by year, it has sought to curb, regulate, harass, restrain and punish…Neither small nor large business can flourish in such an atmosphere.”
The 1968 platform urged “an expanding free enterprise system to provide jobs” and condemned the incumbent’s “economic mismanagement of the highest order.”
That charge certainly hits the mark in 2012. Compared to President Obama, LBJ looks like a miserly accountant. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, President Obama’s term includes the highest spending years since 1946. During President Obama’s term, Washington has added $5 trillion in debt.
Noting that “private property ownership is the cornerstone of American liberty,” the 1980 platform derided the federal government as “an aggressive enemy of the human right to private property ownership.”
Again, that charge is just as true today—and so is the remedy put forth in 1980. “Our foremost goal here at home is simple: economic growth and full employment without inflation,” Reagan’s platform-writers explained.
In 1952, the platform concluded that Washington had “deprived our citizens of precious liberties by seizing powers…hampered progress by unnecessary and crushing taxation…violated our liberties by turning loose upon the country a swarm of arrogant bureaucrats.” That sounds exactly like the sentiment that unleashed the Tea Party in 2009 and then triggered the historic midterm chastening in 2010.
The 1980 platform made a “case for the individual” and offered an indictment of statism: “They believe that every time new problems arise beyond the power of men and women as individuals to solve, it becomes the duty of government to solve them, as if there were never any alternative…Our case for the individual is stronger than ever.”
A Rejection of Government Control
Of course, liberty is about far more than property rights and taxation. “Because we treasure freedom of conscience,” the 2000 platform vowed, “we oppose attempts to compel individuals or institutions to violate their moral standards in providing health-related services…We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it.”
That brings us to today’s debate over nationalized healthcare and the spinoff debate over ObamaCare’s alarming encroachment on religious liberty.
The president’s healthcare law required all employers offering health insurance to include coverage for “preventive health services.” HHS later defined this to include contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs like the morning-after pill. Many observers hoped the president would direct HHS to provide a broad exemption for religious employers—and for good reason: In 2009, the president spoke eloquently about the need to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion” and said he was open to “a sensible conscience clause.”
But those hopes were dashed, as we now know. HHS initially exempted only those organizations that employ people of the same faith, serve people of the same faith and focus on religious teaching as their main mission. Universities, primary and secondary schools, hospitals, nursing homes, food kitchens and virtually all religious charitable organizations would not receive a conscience-clause exemption from HHS, which explains the firestorm that erupted in January.
“This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty for all,” Cardinal Dolan explained. “If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end?”
Dolan wasn’t the only religious leader to come to that conclusion. The National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have all condemned the ruling. Federal lawsuits have been filed by numerous religious employers.
Reacting to the backlash, the president proposed a compromise that would allow religious employers not to include contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in their health-insurance plan as long as they make sure their employees have insurance alternatives that provide contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and the like. The White House also offered “a one-year transition period for religious organizations while this policy is being implemented.”
As Dolan put it, “In effect, the president is saying we have one year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
The Founders crafted a system whereby faith could impact and influence the government—but not the other way around. The ObamaCare power grab attempts to upend that system and must be reversed.
By the way, the GOP has been adamantly opposed to nationalized healthcare since it was first proposed in the post-World War II years. In 1952, the platform Ike stood on resolutely declared, “We are opposed to federal compulsory health insurance with its crushing cost, wasteful inefficiency, bureaucratic dead weight and debased standards of medical care.” Today’s historians call Ike a “moderate.”
The 1980 platform was similarly adamant, declaring that Reagan and his party “unequivocally oppose socialized medicine, in whatever guise it is presented…We reject the creation of a national health service and all proposals for compulsory national health insurance.”
A Government that Lives within Its Means
In 1860, Lincoln’s platform noted that “people justly view with alarm the reckless extravagance which pervades every department of the federal government” and explained that a “return to rigid economy and accountability is indispensable to arrest the systematic plunder of the public treasury.”
“Our goal is a balanced budget,” the 1952 platform declared, promising “a reduced national debt, an economical administration and a cut in taxes.”
Likewise, Reagan’s foot-soldiers vowed in 1980 to “limit government spending to a fixed and smaller percentage of the Gross National Product…[and] place limits on federal spending as a percent of the Gross National Product.”
These ideas are echoed in the cut, cap and balance proposals of 2011. They make sense. And they remind us that policymakers have the tools, if not the will, to tackle the fiscal problems facing America.
For his part, the president has done nothing to tackle those problems. The federal government has spent more than 24 percent of GDP in each of President Obama’s years in the White House, far above the historic average of 20 percent. Each and every year he has been in office, President Obama has carried a deficit above $1 trillion—an unprecedented feat. And as a result, the country’s public debt has exploded from 38 percent of GDP in 2008 to 85 percent today.
Defending American Interests and Leading the World
Winning platforms reject both cowering isolation and muddled internationalism.
Ike’s first platform is instructive because, as in his day, we are in the midst of another difficult, multi-sided war against a cunning enemy. “They profess to be following a defensive policy of ‘containment’ of Russian Communism, which has not contained it,” the platform explained. At the time (in 1952) the Soviets had brought China into their orbit and were waging an expansionist war in Korea.
In a similar way, the current administration claims to be successfully fighting America’s jihadist enemies, yet the jihadists are surging in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, while American power has ebbed in Iraq and is AWOL in Syria.
“Our nation will become again the dynamic, the moral and spiritual force which was the despair of despots and the hope of the oppressed,” the 1952 platform promised.
After four years of watching an American president bow to monarchs and apologize to the Middle East, the world would be well-served if America again became the “despair of despots and the hope of the oppressed.”
Reagan’s first platform is instructive because we are engaged in a global conflict and yet we are engaged in dangerous cuts that could undermine our military posture. “Keeping America strong,” the 1980 recalled, “once occupied a hallowed place in American diplomacy, but it was casually, even cavalierly dismissed at the outset by the Carter administration.”
Sadly, history has repeated itself in this regard. The president signed a one-sided nuclear-force reduction treaty with Russia, proposed stunning changes in America’s nuclear posture, retreated from Iraq, “led from behind” in Libya, conducted a half-hearted war in Afghanistan and has slashed the size of the U.S. military.
The reality is that the Armed Forces are not to blame for the budget-deficit mess. As then-Defense Secretary Gates warned in one of his last addresses, “I have long believed—and I still do—that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes....in 1961, defense consumed more than half the federal budget, and the portion of the nation’s economic output devoted to the military was about 9 percent. By comparison, this year’s base defense budget…represents less than 15 percent of all federal spending and equates to roughly three and a half percent of GDP.”
Yet the Armed Forces are shouldering all the cuts. The president recently embraced plans for a massive defense cut of $487 billion. This followed $400 billion in cuts, which the president ordered in 2010-11.
Focusing on Ideas
Great political parties, Tocqueville observed more than 170 years ago, “are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special cases; to ideas and not to men.”
The Republican Party of 2012 doesn’t yet meet Tocqueville’s definition, but it has in the past and it can in the future. To do so, it should focus on ideas. Just as great parties cling to principles and ideas, voters cling to great parties.