Another pablum platform

Robert Novak

8/5/2004 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

 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.

 Old hands at platform-building have been cut out this time. Former congressional staffer William Gribbin, who has written all the party's national platforms dating back to 1980, was not invited. The hope for a substantive platform was the selection as the executive director of Jay Lefkowitz, White House policy chief for the first three years of the Bush administration. But he was dropped when he declined to resign from his Washington law-lobbying firm.

 The slow pace of platform-building may be attributed to Frist's preoccupation with being majority leader, but a more devious explanation is confirmed by the apparent schedule. In recent years, platform committee members arrive on Sunday night the week before the convention and are then given the platform draft. The usual Sunday night reception has been canceled, and committee members expect to get the documents Monday morning. Actually, they will not start until Tuesday, leaving little time for consideration before approving it Thursday.

 The Democrats at least went through the charade of an open drafting committee session, which was totally controlled by the Kerry campaign. But the Bush campaign appears to be readying the platform committee with a fait accompli. If they are given the antiseptic document that appears likely, an explosion may occur in New York.

 A platform executive director was finally named last week: Washington lobbyist Anne Phelps, an ex-White House aide who before that was Frist's chief health adviser. Newly appointed platform communications director Ginny Wolfe, another former Frist aide, started her stint at the platform committee this week by being supremely uncommunicative to this column.

 What the Bush campaign seems to be building is what one veteran GOP operative told us is "the antithesis of traditional Republican platforms. After all, when you're proud of your positions, and confident of their rightness, you want to explain them. When you're afraid to talk about them, well . . . "