WASHINGTON -- With the Republican National Convention's platform committee convening in New York less than three weeks from now, no draft platform exists, no subcommittees have been named and no special lodging for committee members has been assigned. Rather than signifying sudden collapse of accustomed Republican efficiency, all this looks more like a coolly calculated plan.
The suspicion has grown that President Bush's re-election strategists -- Karl Rove and Karen Hughes -- do not want the open debate over principles and policy that has characterized Republican platform-making for a generation. The carefully guarded Bush campaign game plan is to present delegates on the platform committee with an unpleasant surprise when they arrive in New York: a trimmed down document with virtually no time to debate it.
Thus, Republicans would replicate the pablum platform that Democrats, abandoning an older tradition of fierce policy struggles, quietly adopted in Boston last week. But the White House may be playing with fire. While Democrats were manipulated to embrace a meaningless document, Republican delegates accustomed to vigorous debate have not been conditioned.
For more than a quarter of a century, Republican platforms have been forged in an intense debate, often against the presidential candidate's wishes. The pattern was set in 1976, when Sen. Jesse Helms led Reagan forces against President Gerald Ford. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan was seeking re-election, then House Republican Whip Trent Lott as platform chairman resisted White House efforts to equivocate on taxes and abortion. In 1996, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois threatened to resign as chairman if candidate Bob Dole interfered.
In 2000, platform chairman Tommy Thompson (then governor of Wisconsin but looking for a federal Cabinet post) was subservient to the Bush campaign but did not forestall the customary debate. As usual, platform committee members who are ordinary citizens challenged members of Congress and other professional politicians.
The 2004 chairman, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, always was expected to be even more the campaign's agent than Thompson. His chairmanship has been notable for what has not happened: no outreach to interest groups in the broad Republican coalition, no subcommittees appointed and, most significantly, no draft platform prepared for committee action. Committee members have not even been informed of where they are staying in New York.