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No Dissent Allowed | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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No Dissent Allowed

The principle that people of good faith might disagree on issues such as abortion, family planning and gay and lesbian rights lost by a 4-1 margin when members of the Republican party's platform committee debated the notion this week. According to most media, that was the "news" from the Grand Old Party's platform deliberations -- just as the failure of moderate Republicans to move the party toward the center on social issues has been the "news" of every Republican National Convention since 1976.

Christopher Barron, an activist with the Log Cabin Republicans, the party's largest gay and lesbian rights group, was correct when he complained that the platform -- with its militant anti-abortion rights plank and its endorsement of a Constitutional amendment designed to ban same-sex marriages -- makes a joke of the efforts of convention planners to present a moderate face by featuring convention speakers who happen to be pro-choice and sympathetic to gay rights. "You can't craft a vicious, mean-spirited platform and then put lipstick on the pig by putting Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger on in prime time," explained Barron.

In truth, there was never any chance that Republican moderates would soften the party's official stances on hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gay rights. There was never even a chance that the platform committee, which met in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, would endorse a "unity plank" acknowledging that issues involving reproductive freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians can be "complex" and that "Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in this platform."

Yet most of the news stories regarding the platform committee's sessions focused entirely on the empty "debate" on social issues that saw Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who moved to reject the "unity plank," declare that with a straight face that, "We are the party of the open door."

Unfortunately, the real story of the platform process was not the latest failure of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Choice to get any respect from the party to which they have maintained a touching, if not particularly rational, loyalty through brush off after brush off. The real story was the revelation that the 150-year-old Republican Party has ceased to exist as an independent entity.

It is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, much as the Brown & Root military-contracting firm is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Halliburton. Like everything else about the 2004 convention of this once-great party, the platform carries a great big Bush-Cheney imprint and no evidence whatsoever that grassroots Republicans had any say at all in the process of shaping their party's agenda.

No one expected the Republican Party to pick a fight with its maximum leaders. Platform deliberations for both parties long ago ceased to be the ideological battles that they were in the 1960s and 1970s. That was evident in this year's Democratic platform writing process, which was far too deferent to the demands of John Kerry's presidential campaign.

But the Democrat deliberations, as controlled as they were, looked like a free-for-all compared with the micromanaged Republican sessions.

Veteran platform committee members and observers were stunned by the extent that, more than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, this platform is the reflection not of the ideas and values of people who were supposed to draft the manifesto but of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. The 90-page document opens up with a 41-page apologia for Bush's handling of the war on terror; while the rest of the document mirrors the Bush line -- or lack of line -- on every issue from tax cuts to stem-cell research.

To be sure, the GOP manifesto is a conservative document. But it is Bush conservatism that defines it, not the thinking of grassroots Republicans. Thus, on the divisive issue of immigration reform, the platform language reflects the administration's "have-it-both-ways" line by offering only a murky promise that the country's new immigration rules will be "legal, safe, orderly and humane."

"It's Clinton-like doublespeak in a Republican platform," grumbled Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is the party's most visceral critic of the administration's attempts to develop of "guest worker" program for immigrants.

Tancredo may be wrong on this and other issues, but he is right about the doublespeak.

"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," noted conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has been attending Republican platform hearings for decades. "(The) Bush White House completely abandoned the old platform process."

To a dramatically greater extent than the reelection campaigns of Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign placed its imprint on the manifesto that will be approved by delegates at next week's convention. Nixon and Reagan both accepted a measure of genuine debate and dissent within the Republican Party -- indeed, the 1984 platform deviated substantially from the language Reagan aides had sought on tax policy. But those days are gone.

The platform process illustrated the eerie extent to which the Republican Party has become nothing more than an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Instead of letting the roughly 100 members of the platform committee craft a document and then debate it -- as both parties have traditionally done -- a draft document was handed to platform committee members at 7 p.m. on the night before they were expected to approve it. Novak said the drafting process was so secretive and controlled that it came to "resemble the Manhattan Project of developing the atomic bomb."

"The process," Novak observed, "fits the Bush white House's authoritarian aura that has tempered enthusiasm within the party on the eve of the national convention."

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