23 May 2016

The platform wars

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was embarrassed in Washington state over the weekend when all but one of the delegates chosen at the state's GOP convention were loyal to Senator Cruz. The outcome may look like a protest vote, since Cruz has suspended his campaign, despite his pathetic threat to resume the fight had Oregon gone his way. It seems an even more feeble protest, since Washington still holds a primary tomorrow and, according to this story, the delegates chosen over the weekend will be bound to support Trump should he win the primary, as expected in the absence of active opposition. However, their obligation to Trump presumably begins and ends with a vote for his nomination. These delegates presumably are not obliged to vote Trump's way, whatever that may be, on planks of the Republican platform. Cruz and other diehard Republican ideologues clearly hope to use the platform to reassure the regulars of the party's ideological soundness, regardless of what Trump has in mind. Supporters of Senator Sanders on the Democratic side have something similar in mind. Sanders remains determined to maximize his delegate count for the Democratic convention in order to push through a "progressive" platform, regardless of what Hillary Clinton has in mind. For both parties, the platform fights promise to be the main events of the national conventions, now that the presidential nominations, barring the unforeseen, are foregone conclusions. But what's the point of platform fights today?

If anything, platforms built with ideological carpentry more extreme than the actual candidates' positions can only hurt them with the general electorate. A Democratic platform shaped by Sanders or a Republican platform shaped by Cruz will only provide ammunition for the opposite party on the assumption that Clinton or Trump must agree with every plank on the platform. Yet who actually believes that either Clinton or Trump will govern in a manner governed by their party platforms? If Republicans don't trust Trump to govern within constitutional bounds, why should they trust him to respect the platform? If Democrats don't trust Clinton to govern consistently with any principle, why even care what the platform says? Once upon a time the platform was a party's principal campaign document, the thing people could read even if they never got to hear a proper campaign speech. It told you what the party stood for, but in this election perhaps more than ever the personalities of the major-party candidates will be all that matters to most people.The candidates' acceptance speeches, a comparatively recent innovation, now occupy the mental space once taken by the party platforms. How many people will actually read the party platforms, apart from opposition researchers looking for vulnerabilities? Yet the diehard opposition in both parties still reaches for planks of the platform as refuge from the popular tide. Their platform battles may ultimately be empty gestures, but I suppose they continue to justify a campaign's existence and keep the cash coming in from the donors, even though their eventual handiwork is unlikely to support the weight of the modern Presidency and all its pretensions and prerogatives. If platforms are to mean anything, they should be in place before the primaries, and party leaders should have the power to forbid anyone who doesn't endorse the platform from running for President. Instead, a candidate usually dictates a platform after his or her nomination has become a fait accompli. This year promises to be different because of entrenching ideological opposition to the presumptive nominees, but this year's conventions may only prove that platforms and platform wars make little difference in the actual governance of the country.

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