Republican governors, whose political muscle helped launch Texas Gov. George W. Bush into the lead of the GOP presidential race, are taking dead aim at the party platform, hoping to use it to write their own agenda for the next Congress and administration.
Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said today that a closed-door caucus of the Republican Governors' Association had agreed on a series of moves designed "to make us more visible in the platform process so the successes we've had in our states are reflected in the party's program."
Keating, chairman of the RGA, is a Bush supporter, as are 20 of the other Republican state executives. He said he would brief Bush, who has skipped the meeting here of the National Governors' Association, when they meet in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
The move could presage a battle between the governors, who tend to be pragmatic politicians, and social conservatives who have written ideological conservative platforms that recent nominees such as Robert J. Dole have treated as if they were time bombs.
Keating said that if the governors have their way, the platform will reflect the party's "basic conservatism," but express it in a way that "the average American can feel comfortable with."
"Not everything has to be in your face," he added.
Keating said task forces led by individual GOP governors will hold retreats with think tank experts and others to frame policy statements on education, taxes, health care and law enforcement in the next few months. The group will begin to formulate policy planks at a November meeting in California and carry them to the nominee next spring and to the national convention in Philadelphia a year from now.
Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, incoming chairman of the NGA, said the governors hope their work will have its greatest impact on shaping the agenda for the next Congress in much the same way the House GOP "Contract with America" dominated the agenda of the 104th Congress. "We think that Republican governors are in a position to offer some clear, decisive leadership on the direction of the country and the party," he said.
The governors' determination to play a larger role in developing the GOP platform and a party agenda reflects their frustration with the party's congressional wing, which has often held the governors at arm's length in developing national policy. That frustration is one reason so many governors embraced Bush's candidacy.
Leavitt said governors feel they have made little progress forging a partnership with GOP congressional leaders, despite repeated meetings and declarations of cooperation over the past few years. "The leadership of Congress has been responsive to our calls, but our relationship has slid back to that of lobbyists, rather than partners," he said.
South Dakota Gov. William J. Janklow added, "They're so embattled, they don't have a game plan." He said that if Bush or some other Republican is elected without a clear agenda, he will accomplish nothing.
Republican Party rules mandate rotating the chairmanship of the convention platform committee among the Senate, the House and governors, and next year is the governors' turn.
When the role of the governors in setting party policy was raised at this morning's session, some said they were not sure they wanted to try to write the platform personally. But most agreed with Michigan Gov. John Engler that, at the very least, they could screen the people on their state delegations who serve on the platform committee.
Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Bush ally, said the GOP governors believe they should have a greater voice in setting the party's agenda because they have combined conservative philosophies with governing styles that have produced "practical success" in their states. He and others also argued that governors, who are accustomed to negotiating deals with their legislatures, might bring consensus to a process that frequently has produced bitter internal fights.
Social conservatives have dominated the platform process at recent Republican national conventions, writing documents that often have produced more controversy than anything else. That is one reason Dole tried to walk away from the platform and the drafting process.
The governors' determination to play a larger role in the process threatens the power of those conservative constituencies, but Keating said he does not anticipate any effort by the governors to dilute the party's conservative principles.
"The Republican Party is a socially conservative party," he said, and the platform "will reflect the thinking of the party." He said there would be no attempt "to camouflage our views."