GOP Platform Committee begins debate on party manifesto

The singing, cheering, funny-hat wearing delegates that represent the GOP’s heart won’t gather in this Florida city for the Republican National Convention for another week.

But the party’s brain — a select group of 112 delegates chosen to draft the party’s official platform for the next four years — is already here. Starting Monday, the group meets for a 48-hour marathon of debate over philosophy and propositions.

Their task is to write a 50- to 60-page manifesto that defines what it means to be a Republican.

If the Platform Committee members do their job badly, they could spark debate and disunity that could seep into the convention next week, when hundreds of Republican delegates will be asked to adopt their work as one of the convention’s first items of business.

If they do their job well, they’ll slave over a party plan that, in truth, few people will ever read.

A good platform must be specific enough to provide guidance for governing but general enough to remain a lofty statement of unifying principle.

It must dovetail with the ideas and policies of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). But it must also encompass the beliefs of a sometimes divided party, including activists who supported Romney’s Republican opponents during the primary season.

The document must be “clear and concise” and must “embody the heart and soul of what the Republican party believes in,” said Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who chairs the committee, along with Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). “It’s not easy.”

McDonnell said the document must leave people with a simple take-away message: “We need to put policies in place quickly to get the greatest country on earth out of debt and back to work.”

The hot-button social issues are likely to get the most public attention.

Last time around, the platform also endorsed a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion. Will this year’s also call for a “personhood” amendment, which would extend the rights of citizens to fetuses?

The 2008 platform did not address whether the party officials held that abortions are illegal in all instances, including cases of rape and incest. That topic could get a hearing this year, in the wake of controversial comments from Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Missouri. He told an interviewer that he believed pregnancies rarely result from “legitimate rape” because the “female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

In response, the Romney campaign issued a statement Sunday saying that Romney and Ryan disagreed with Akin’s statement and that a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in cases of rape, a position not universally shared within the party.

Democrats, who will meet in Charlotte next month, have already announced that their platform will include a plank endorsing same-sex marriage.

Republicans last time called for a federal constitutional amendment outlawing such unions, and it is likely this year’s platform will do the same. (“I think there will certainly be an affirmation of traditional marriage,” said McDonnell.)

Log Cabin Republicans, who support gay rights, have already met with Republican staffers writing the first draft of the platform, from which the Platform Committee will work, to encourage a different path.

So did representatives of the Family Research Council, which opposes same-sex marriage and had expressed concern that specific questions about the marriage issue were not included on a Republican survey distributed to solicit input about issues of concern to party members.

The rise of the tea party movement, with its intense focus on spending and deficits, as well as Romney’s selection of deficit hawk Ryan as his running mate, may shine new light on the sections of the platform dealing with the federal budget.

It will likely endorse balancing the federal budget. But will it outline how quickly the nation should aim to do so? The budget Ryan authored as chairman of the House Budget Committee would balance around 2040. But many conservatives would like to see faster action.

Will it endorse the elimination of specific federal agencies, as many supporters of former presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) might suggest? Will it embrace block-granting Medicaid or specific Medicare reforms? Will it mention the nation’s debt ceiling and outline when and how it may be raised?

Will it endorse making tax rates enacted during President George W. Bush’s administration permanent, or will it suggest dropping them still lower, by weeding out tax breaks and deductions through comprehensive tax reform?

Onetime supporters of Paul have already said they will push for a plank calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve. That seems like a good candidate for inclusion, given that the GOP-led House of Representatives has already passed a resolution calling for such an audit. However, a return to the gold standard, another top priority of some Paul supporters, seems unlikely to make it.

McDonnell said RNC staffers and Platform Committee leaders have taken “broad input” from different interest groups and grass-roots activists, and he encouraged those with thoughts to continue to offer them over the next two days via the committee’s Web site.

“Hopefully, it gets some readership among independent voters who will look at what we believe in and contrast that with the other team,” he said.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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