NEW YORK -- At 5 p.m. Tuesday night, the 2004 Republican platform committee met for the first time at the Jacob Javits Center. At exactly 7 p.m., the committee's members got their first glimpse of the 90-page document to be approved by subcommittees Wednesday. They were bused back to their hotels to study what is much more substantive than the pablum platform adopted by Democrats in Boston but does not resemble the robust Republican platform process of recent years.
This platform is less a forward-looking declaration of party principle than a backward-looking review of President Bush's four years, more so than with past incumbent presidents. The first 41 pages praise Bush as a war leader. Because there is little difference between the president's and mainstream Republican thinking, however, it is a basically conservative document. Conservatives can take issue with stem-cell research, gay marriage and particularly immigration provisions, but the Right is essentially happy with this platform.
But why did drafting this political manifesto resemble the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb? The process fits the Bush White House's authoritarian aura that has tempered enthusiasm within the party on the eve of its national convention.
Actually, the big issues -- taxes and abortion -- that formerly generated fervent Republican platform battles have been decided. Past presidential nominees, even incumbents, did not always win those struggles. In 1984 at Dallas, the platform committee beat back the Reagan White House's desire for wiggle room on raising taxes. In 1996 at San Diego, candidate Bob Dole's attempts to fudge on abortion were turned back. George W. Bush faced no such confrontations.
Nevertheless, the Bush White House completely abandoned the old platform process. While Democrats went through a seemingly democratic procedure to create a sham platform skirting contentious issues, Republicans have a real platform that was handed down like the Ten Commandments. The subcommittee chairmen got their first glimpse of it last weekend, but it was kept from the other 100-odd committee members until after their opening reception Tuesday night.
Since that reception always was held Sunday night one week prior to the convention, the delay cut in half the time normally devoted to platform consideration. Even the committee's membership was kept secret. The opening reception, normally at a hotel, was unannounced and held at the antiseptic Javits Center under police guard. I somehow gained admission to the building but could not get into the reception I had always attended beginning in 1980 at Detroit. As they left the reception, several platform committee members expressed appreciation to me for a previous column exposing what one called the "dumbing down" of the platform process.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the platform chairman, dispatched aide Bill Wichterman to the Shelburne Hotel Tuesday night to sell the document to Phyllis Schlafly and other conservatives perusing a bootlegged copy. Most of it did not require any selling. Besides holding firm on taxes and abortion, the platform opposes the Kyoto global warming treaty, supports tort reform and backs Social Security privatization.
The rule is that nothing in the platform should cause grief for candidate Bush. It is not specific in endorsing tax reform, because the president does not have a plan. It approves his attempted middle ground on stem-cell research, though many Republicans on each side are critical. Like Bush, it backs a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage but is mute on civil unions.
The greatest point of controversy among the conservatives huddling at the Shelburne was the Bush immigration reform, which has lain dormant in Congress after generating fierce opposition. Evoking eerie memories of Bill Clinton's formulation on abortion, the platform calls for an immigration system that is "legal, safe, orderly and humane," while endorsing the Bush program.
The White House has trembled at the thought of an immigration fight but had nothing to fear. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, chairman of the subcommittee considering this issue, can be counted on to support the president's position. But what harm would it do to debate this important issue? Vigorous platform disputes did not keep Ronald Reagan from landslide election wins in 1980 and 1984, and sticking to the normal process would not have threatened George W. Bush in 2004.