A poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press included an unexpected result: Americans said they were more interested in the party platforms released during the conventions than the speeches. That is to say, forget the pageantry; voters want the cold, hard PDF documents.
That must be a letdown for the two campaigns — like discovering the guests at your wedding are really there to see your aunts and uncles. But it shows real wisdom on the part of the American people. Parties, and the platforms they produce, often matter more than candidates.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
Take President Obama. He campaigned as a different kind of Democrat, one unleashed from the hoary controversies, stale ideas and bitter arguments of yesteryear. His central policy difference with rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards was that their health-care plans included an individual mandate and his didn’t. His great promise was that he would change Washington in ways the others couldn’t.
After becoming president, Obama governed from the center of his party, building an individual mandate into his health-care bill, backing cap-and-trade antipollution legislation developed by House Democrats, and supporting a slew of ideas that had been floating around Democratic Party circles for years — the Lilly Ledbetter Act on equal pay, new tobacco regulations, an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, green energy credits. If you had known only that a Democratic candidate had won the presidency in 2008 without knowing which candidate, you could’ve largely predicted the agenda just the same.
That’s neither criticism nor compliment; it’s simply the reality of our two-party political system, which doesn’t afford presidents or individual legislators much power to take action on their own. Consequently, the quadrennial party platform is a useful document, reflecting the compromises hammered out among relevant players: activists, interest groups and the presidential campaign. After spending weeks haggling over language, they emerge with a political vision that all can live, and govern, with.
That produces some oddities. The 2012 Republican platform warns against “our dependence on foreign imports of fertilizer,” for example, while demanding that “any value added tax or national sales tax must be tied to the simultaneous repeal of the 16th Amendment, which established the federal income tax.” It recommends the formation of a commission to study whether we should return to the gold standard, the last vestige of which was abandoned under President Richard M. Nixon.
Too often, discussion of party platforms begins and ends with such wacky bits. It shouldn’t. The Republican platform takes up a consequential 62 pages. The section on economic recovery, for example, is quite detailed about the party’s reigning philosophy of economic growth and how to achieve it. The main problem it cites is too much government; the solution is to cut spending, cut regulations and unleash the private sector to perform its wonders.