Salena Zito

What we say or do has a way of coming back to us, especially if you're a political candidate.

Thanks to technology, words are like boomerangs, always traveling in a curved path and returning inevitably to their point of origin. And in this wired age, those boomerangs travel at the speed of light.

The respective party platforms on which Barack Obama and John McCain base their campaigns will be under more intense scrutiny than ever before.

In a presidential election, American political parties adopt platforms that are delivered on the convention floor - heavy on fuzzy ideology and sweeping statements, always accessorized with waving American flags, balloons and confetti.

No matter the party, the candidate's speeches always begin with: "If elected, I promise... ."

"Our platforms correspond to 'manifestos' in the European parliamentary model," explained former Democratic National Committee executive director Mark Siegel.

Siegel said platforms once were much more detailed, but then ran into a "costing-out" trap - the actual debt incurred to pay for the promises. Because of that, they have become increasingly thematic instead of programmatic.

"It sort of corresponds to the State of the Union address being broad and abstract, and the president's subsequent budget delving deep into the policy weeds," he said.

Yet platforms are very useful, generic presentations of a party's brand. If you line them up, side-by-side, you'll see they pretty well define the policy chasm between each party and are implemented much more seriously than is commonly thought.

After their platform speeches this summer, Obama and McCain will become more defined and more contrasted in spite of each trying to play down their sectarianism.

Since they still hold the White House, Republicans will have to do the heavy lifting on the war issue, on the economy and on fuel prices. Because of that, they may resort to fairly general statements of philosophy.

McCain also has indicated that he wants the party to get in on the "green game."

Siegel said that since Democrats will be on the "green" attack, he expects Republicans to be more environmentally aggressive. "On the other hand," he said, "they don't want to scare anyone, so I think they will stay away, except very generally, from hot-button socio-cultural issues."

Look for the Republican platform to reach out in a genuine way to the plight of the working stiff, stoking the need to reinvent the economy based on becoming more fuel-efficient, more fuel-diverse and reducing the nation's carbon footprint. Also look for a foreign policy twist that is heavy on veteran's benefits and on building a high-tech military.

Those policies are a direct plea to the eyes and ears of Reagan Democratic voters, the majority of whom went for Hillary Clinton in the primary contests.

Both Obama and McCain will pitch hard for those voters on the convention floor. They know that in battleground states, the Reagan-Democrat swing voting bloc will determine this November election.

Invoking a party platform is one method of branding, but the ultimate branding comes from a candidate's words and the "message" that appears in a candidate's or party's media.

And while platforms can be harmful, they also can be helpful.

According to Siegel, a perfect scenario for Republicans' harmful/helpful nature is the difficulty they will have appealing to Hillary's female supporters, if the party adopts a strong right-to-life plank. "That platform plank will be waived in the face of Democratic women (and) feminists as one very important reason to 'come home,' " he said.

In other words, platforms matter - and, just like a boomerang circling around, platforms can hit back, if a party doesn't live up to its promises.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.