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.