Platforms: How Parties Define their Policy Positions

By Ralph Dannheisser, Contributing Editor

The platforms adopted at U. S. political party conventions have had one consistent function: to outline what the party stands for in language that all its candidates in the upcoming election campaign can, hopefully, subscribe to.

This striving for inclusiveness is not a new phenomenon; indeed, Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, referred to platform documents as "fusions of ambiguity."

Despite this effort to bring in all viewpoints, the job of assembling the party platform has often in the past produced lively, and even angry, disputes on the convention floor. Thus, for example, Prohibition -- the federal government's ban on alcoholic beverages -- proved a contentious issue for the 1932 Republican convention that nominated Herbert Hoover. Fights over civil rights planks actually caused angry convention walkouts for Democrats in the 1940s.

But such disarray was notable by its absence this year. Party platforms, along with the selection of the presidential and vice presidential candidates, were effectively resolved even before delegates assembled at a pair of conventions -- the Republicans in San Diego, the Democrats in Chicago -- that were artfully crafted to display minimum conflict and maximum party harmony. Both party platforms won floor approval without a hint of argument, dissent or fanfare.

A seemingly growing disconnect between the platform documents and the campaign was accelerated this year as, at least in one party, responsible officials voiced their disinterest in the document and denied even knowing what was in it.

The Republican Party's presidential candidate himself, Bob Dole, said during the convention that he did not feel bound by the platform's provisions. "I probably agree with most everything in it, but I haven't read it," he confessed. The party chairman, Haley Barbour, acknowledged that he hadn't read the document either. So did Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, considered one of the Republicans' leading idea men.

Democrats were quick to jump on this phenomenon. Unlike the Republicans, said Senator Christopher Dodd, his party's general chairman, his colleagues offered a platform that Democratic candidates could "run on with pride." But while Democrats did not go so far as to disown their party's policy document -- predictably a call for continuity -- neither did they make much effort to focus public or media attention on it.

And what is in this year's platforms?

As is inevitably the case, the incumbent party -- in this case the Democrats -- "points with pride" to its accomplishments in office, while the challengers -- now the Republicans -- "view with alarm" what they portray as the sorry state things have come to since the voters turned them out of power.

In one important general respect, however, the Republican platform jibes with the Democrats' version: Although both documents put their main emphasis on domestic issues, both see a vital role for continued U. S. engagement in the world.

Given the "new challenges and new threats to our vital interests" in the wake of the Cold War, the Republicans say, "our nation must resist the temptation to turn inward and neglect the exercise of American leadership and our proper role in the world." The section on foreign affairs in their platform begins with a comparable quote from candidate Dole: "It's time to restore American leadership throughout the world. Our future security depends on American leadership that is respected, American leadership that is trusted, and when necessary, American leadership that is feared."

The Democratic platform, for its part, declares, "President Clinton and Vice President Gore have seized the opportunities of the post-Cold War era. Over the past four years, their leadership has made America safer, more prosperous, and more engaged in solving the challenges of a new era."

Here are other highlights of the two parties' platforms:

The Republicans

In the case of the Republicans, a platform bound into a handsomely printed 100-odd page booklet called "Restoring the American Dream" was developed by a 107-member committee headed by Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois. With conflict on the touchy issue of abortion finessed in advance of the convention -- pro-choice advocates were able to outline their views in a separate appendix to the document -- the platform passed, quietly and without amendment, on the first evening of the convention. It got little notice from the commercial television networks during the nightly "prime time" hour that they devoted to convention coverage.

Of the overall platform, some 20 pages -- assembled under the rubric, "Restoring American World Leadership" -- deal with foreign affairs and related topics.

In line with the "view with alarm" approach generally adopted by the non-incumbent party, the Republican document insists that "the international situation -- and our country's security against the purveyors of evil -- has worsened over the last three-and-a-half-years" while President Clinton has been in office.

It goes on to chronicle a long list of supposed Clinton administration failures: "Today, Russia's democratic future is more uncertain than at any time since the hammer and sickle was torn from the Kremlin towers. With impunity, Fidel Castro has shot American citizens out of the skies over international waters. North Korea has won unprecedented concessions regarding its nuclear capability from the Clinton Administration. Much of Africa has dissolved in tragedy -- Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia. The Clinton administration objected to lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia while it facilitated the flow of Iranian weapons to that country. Bill Clinton made tough campaign pledges on China but subsequently failed in his attempt to bluff the Chinese government -- diminishing American prestige while not addressing the serious issues of human rights, regional stability, and nuclear proliferation."

Describing the Republicans as "the party of peace through strength," the platform advocates putting "the interests of our country over those of other nations -- and of the United Nations."

The document assures that "Republicans will not subordinate United States sovereignty to any international authority." It reiterates what has become a major foreign policy theme for the party: "We oppose the commitment of American troops to U. N. peacekeeping operations under foreign commanders and will never compel American servicemen to wear foreign uniforms or insignia." Further, it calls for an end to "waste, mismanagement and fraud" at the United Nations, and rejects "any international taxation" by that organization or any grant of authority to an international court to try American citizens.

With respect to Europe, the platform calls for strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which it deems "the world's strongest bulwark of freedom and international stability." It specifically endorses Dole's call for expansion of NATO to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary by 1998.

While voicing support for U. S. troops in Bosnia, it challenges "the ill-conceived and inconsistent policies that led to their deployment." The platform proposes a "timely withdrawal" of U. S. forces, linked to provision of weapons and training to the Bosnian Federation, as "the only realistic exit strategy."

On defense issues, the platform charges that Clinton has left the United States defenseless against missile attack and calls for establishment of a national missile defense system for all 50 states by 2003. It describes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed September 24 by President Clinton, as "inconsistent with American security interests" in limiting still-necessary testing. And, claiming seriously eroded military readiness, it proposes broad steps to "reverse the decline in what our nation spends for defense."

The document promises a "proactive" policy against state-sponsored terrorism, declaring that "the governments of North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Cuba must know that America's first line of defense is not our shoreline, but their own borders."

In Africa, the Republicans propose continuing aid programs, but on a more limited "case-by-case" basis. In Asia, they call for emphasis on U. S. mutual security treaties with Japan and the Republic of Korea as "the foundation of our role in the region," a tougher stance toward North Korea and Vietnam, "vigilance" with regard to China's military potential and attitude on human rights, and a reaffirmed commitment to Taiwan's security. In the Middle East, they emphasize the critical importance of Israel as "our most reliable and capable ally in this part of the world" and endorse recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital. In the Western Hemisphere, they call for a new partnership to fight narcotics traffickers and protect democratic gains, and they reaffirm a policy of isolating the Castro regime in Cuba.

On foreign aid, the platform language suggests a turn toward spending on military aid to allies and away from "U. N. operations and social welfare spending in the Third World."

The Democrats

The Democrats list no fewer than 191 members on the committee that put together their own 47-page platform document; drafting the actual document was entrusted to a group of 16 headed by Governor Zell Miller of Georgia. Miller noted the platform-building exercise had started with a full day of public hearings in July.

The Democratic platform -- which devotes just ten pages to foreign policy items under the heading, "Security, Freedom and Peace" -- takes credit for what Democrats see as an unbroken string of foreign policy successes during the Clinton administration.

It points proudly to diplomacy that has eliminated "thousands of Russian nuclear weapons aimed at American cities," the growth of democracy and free markets in the countries of the former Soviet Union, movement toward peace in the Middle East and in Northern Ireland, suspension of the North Korean nuclear program, and a revitalization of NATO that has incorporated peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and impending expansion to include new Central European members.

It claims successes in a restoration of democracy in Haiti, establishment of a national unity government in South Africa through elections strongly backed by the United States, and improvement of the international trading climate by means of initiatives such as the Summit of the Americas, the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings and the trade promotion efforts of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Asserting that the Republicans counsel policies of "retreat and indifference," the platform advocates instead a continuation of policies "exerting American leadership across a range of military, diplomatic and humanitarian challenges around the world."

The Democratic prescription on defense includes full funding of the Pentagon's five-year spending plan, undertaking a second fundamental review of the defense structure, increasing coordination among the service branches, and "ensuring that our troops can dominate the battlefield of the future."

The platform calls for an aggressive effort against weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical and biological -- and their means of delivery, and specifically endorses swift action to approve and effectuate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It also supports early ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which, following the convention, became stalled in the U. S. Senate after Dole signalled his opposition.

The Democrats express support for a "strong and balanced" national missile defense program, including nationwide deployment of a system to defend against long-range missiles by 2003. But the costlier Republican plan "would waste money, weaken America's defenses and violate existing arms control agreements that make us more secure," they argue.

Lauding the administration for mounting "the most aggressive effort in American history to combat terrorism, drug trafficking and international crime," the platform document promises efforts to "seek increased cooperation from our allies and friends abroad in fighting these threats."

It pledges to employ both "decisive strength and active diplomacy" in achieving peace and democracy around the world. The administration, it says, will pursue those ends "with diplomacy where possible, with force where necessary, and working with others where appropriate -- our allies, willing partners, the U. N. and other security organizations -- to share the risks and costs of our leadership."

The platform proclaims broad support for "the aspirations of all those who seek to strengthen civil society and accountable governance." Specifically, it backs the MacBride Principles of equal access to regional employment in Northern Ireland and supports the human rights of Jews and other minorities in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It supports continued funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Asia Pacific Network, Radio Marti "and other efforts to promote democracy and the free flow of ideas."

Complaining that the Republicans in Congress have "savaged" vital spending on foreign policy efforts, the Democrats promise to "resist these irresponsible cuts that undermine our security and America's ability to lead."

In Europe, the Democrats list such objectives as increased assistance to Ukraine, continued peace efforts from Bosnia to Cyprus, and pursuit of a relationship with an evolving Russia in which "we seek cooperation where we can," but also "frankly express disagreements where they exist, such as on Chechnya."

In Asia, they applaud Clinton's policy toward Japan and Korea, as well as administration efforts at "steady engagement to encourage a stable, secure, open and prosperous China -- a China that respects human rights throughout its land and in Tibet, that joins international efforts against weapons proliferation, and that plays by the rules of free and fair trade."

As for the Middle East, the Democrats mirror the Republicans in citing "America's long-standing special relationship with Israel" and declare that "the United States should continue to help Israel maintain its qualitative edge." At the same time, they propose to strengthen ties with "states and peoples in the Arab and Islamic world committed to nonaggression and willing to take risks for peace."

The platform calls for further efforts to consolidate democracy, stability and open markets in the Western Hemisphere. And it declares that "continuing to help the people of Africa nurture their continent's extraordinary potential is both the right thing to do and profoundly in America's interest."

U. S. Foreign Policy Agenda USIA Electronic Journals, Vol. 1, No. 14, October 1996.