July 11, 2007

Did Fred Thompson Want To Dump Party Platforms?

A column by CBN's David Brody discusses statements by Fred Thompson in 1996, when he ran for re-election to a full term in the Senate, about the uselessness of party platforms. Saying that the Republicans "deserve to lose" if they spent the convention arguing over planks in the GOP platform, Fred suggested that no one cared about the end result of the debate:

First off, it appears Thompson wasn't a big fan of the GOP having any sort of platform back in 1996. In April of 1996, this is what The Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote: Thompson wants to change the way the 1996 Republican National Convention is conducted. For starters, he wants to abolish the party platform - just toss the archaic thing away. 'It's the most useless device I've ever heard of,' Thompson said during a recent visit to Memphis."

Thompson also said this in a separate article from April of 1996:
Thompson: "Does Anyone Remember What Was In The Last , Except Abortion? … If We Get Caught Up In Having A Platform Debate And Stuff Like That, We Deserve To Lose."

In August of that same year, Thompson called abortion a "distracting issue." Read below from an Associated Press article:
U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson says he seldom hears about abortion in campaign travels throughout Tennessee and hopes the issue is downplayed at the Republican National Convention. The Tennessee Republican, a pro-choice defender in a party with an anti-abortion tilt, is preparing for next week's convention in San Diego. He said the party must avoid distracting issues and focus on electing Bob Dole as president. 'We need to concentrate on what brings us together and not what divides us,' Thompson said in an interview with The Tennessean published Tuesday.

First, it should be noted that the AP couldn't get the record straight on Fred's abortion position as far back as 1996. Thompson wasn't pro-choice then or now. What Thompson argued was the prioritization of abortion as an issue in the 1996 elections, saying that voters had other priorities and that the GOP needed to focus on Dole's other qualities more. He wanted to do what Clinton had done in the previous election -- remain on topic on those issues that united Americans.

That was one of the reasons why Thompson wanted to ditch the platform. Especially after Pat Buchanan's appearance in 1992, Thompson wanted a unified convention, which he knew the Republicans needed to gain any momentum against Bill Clinton. Platform fights typically generate a lot of anger and passion and leave plenty of hard feelings -- and for what? How many voters read the party platform anyway? They generally exist to give the opposition some easy ammunition to use in general elections. Candidates rarely adopt the platform in its entirety, for the simple reason that they don't agree with all of it.

So, considering the vulnerabilities it imposes on individual candidates, the arguments and disunity it causes when drafting it, and the complete and utter lack of interest from voters, I think the question should be asked again: why have a platform at all? Brody says that the party should have a document which delineates "the principles that unite us," but that's not what a platform is or does. It's not a simple declaration of principles, which might tend to unite, but a lengthy and detailed list of policy positions that tend to divide us.

I'd say a Declaration of Principles sounds like a great idea. It should be left to the candidates to apply those principles to their own policy decisions, and then defend those positions in primary elections. Thompson was right in 1996, and his advice should probably get heeded in 2008.

UPDATE: Of course, the AP and Brody miss the fact that Thompson was campaigning for Robert Dole at the time, and the issue on the abortion plank of the platform was how to keep from alienating libertarian and pro-choice Republicans. This is why Dole and Thompson offered language endorsing "tolerance" for opposing points of view for a Constitutional amendment banning abortions altogether. William F Buckley himself questioned the usefulness of that approach and of platforms altogether:

But one recalls here the critic Hugh Kenner's stricture that writers should not hang their meaning on the correct placement of a comma. Mr. Kenner was talking about newspapers and the necessary hustle and bustle of going to press every day. The Pro-Life people are talking about back-of-the-bus treatment on abortion. If the platform goes out of the way to express "tolerance" for deviation on abortion, doesn't that make it sound as though abortion were uniquely privileged to emerge as the issue on which ambivalence is permitted? After all, there's nothing proposed for the platform that expresses tolerance for those who oppose Social Security laws, or a federal post office, or free lunches for children. ...

What does not make much sense, to partisans either of Life or of Choice, is Bob Dole's attempt to play with words. We all know, or should, that political platforms are there to be seen but not acted on. It hurts the theatrical stand one wants to take to say this out in the open. But surely there are ways out of this.


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CBN’s David Brody has turned up the latest news on Fred Thompson with some key press reports from the mid-1990s. Fred Thompson was against the GOP having a platform. Not having a pro-life plank it, but against having a platform, period. Accordin... [Read More]

Comments (18)

Posted by Strick | July 11, 2007 8:15 AM

Wait. They're trying to tar Thompson because in 1996 he thought party platforms are an obsolete waste of time and should have been abolished? Shouldn't they be complaining about the dinosaurs who insisted on keeping them instead?

When was the last time anyone but a policy wonk or a reporter looking to make mischief read one? Spend the time doing something that would better the country or putting up better people for election or something.

Posted by syn | July 11, 2007 9:06 AM

At this point in this 'way too long presidential campaign' I've decided to vote for the candidate who receives the most negative or freaky story reporting by LA Times, NYTimes, Wapo.

If the media is against it must mean the candidate is good.

Posted by RBMN | July 11, 2007 9:13 AM

The platform has often served as the peace offering to the more passionate (but inflexible) activists of the party, who couldn't get their candidate nominated--a consolation prize.

Posted by Monkei | July 11, 2007 10:03 AM

Captain, you are right, political party platforms are meaningless, especially if you want your party to live and prosper under a big tent.

How will St. Rudy ever be able to run on a GOP party platform that will not jive on most social issues with his previous stances and governing?

Posted by J. Ewing | July 11, 2007 10:27 AM

It has long been my understanding that the National GOP platform is a huge document, developed anew each time in semi-secret and adopted without fanfare, largely written by the delegates for the presumptive nominee, and with enough weasel-words to placate the rest. It's hardly a "statement of principles," definitely not a statement of policy, and unfortunately not a positive "marketing plan" for the party and its candidates, which is what it ought to be.

In short, I tend to agree with Fred. If the document cannot serve the purpose of drawing people (and votes) to the party and its candidates, and in fact does the opposite, then we need to either reform the document and its process or dispense with it altogether.

BTW, there is a GOP "statement of principles" on the RNC web site. .

Posted by Lew | July 11, 2007 10:59 AM

The platform is already supposed to be a "Statement of Principles" as it is, originated from the bottom of the party at the precinct level and pushed up all the way through constant synthesis and editing upward to the National Convention. How would you create another "Statement of Principles" to take its place? And whose principles would they be if not those who made up the party? A committee of marketers or other "experts"?

The problem with platforms is twofold. First, people who care passionately about ideas and moral debate, tend to invest way too much of that passion into a niggling and lawyerly obsession with verbal precision, as if they were writing legislation or a contract with someone they didn't trust.

Secondly, the same people tend to use that same voluminous document like a club to beat errant candidates into a slavish submission in minuscule detail, to every phrase and comma and semicolon. Consequently, it becomes an instrument of division and exclusion, rather than unification and inclusion. Like the EU Constitution, its prima facea evidence that the committee that drew it up was way too big and very badly lead.

An alternative might be a condensed version, expressing in general terms the spirit of the detailed version, that might be subject to an up-or-down vote of acceptance. Instead of asking the convention for agreement in detail, one might call for a vote of acceptance in general, and then get on to other business.

Of course, one might also ask "What other business?" with some relevance, because conventions really don't do much of any importance any more. But that's a tale for another time.

Posted by Neo | July 11, 2007 11:31 AM

Back in 1968 and 1972, the McGovernites made the party platform drafting an arduous task for the Democrats. But by 1992, when the "anointed" Bill Clinton can to the party convention, the platform all but disappeared from the process.

So in 1996, Fred has this idea that maybe what worked for the Democrats in 1992 would be a good idea for the Republicans. Is this really a bad idea ? Of course not.

But history has shown that when the "party platform" was removed from the TV eyes of millions, the conventions were "no longer news" as the networks used their time to better follow the goings-ons of Paris Hilton et al.

Posted by The Yell | July 11, 2007 11:34 AM

I would say the Big Tent dream has come true, and Republicans no long require candidates to commit to any coordinated action on a list of policy goals. Instead they have substituted a simple Profession of Faith: "I believe I would like some of that RNC funding." This act of faith, alone, makes one a good Republican. And a lousy Constitutional officer.

Posted by Carol Herman | July 11, 2007 12:31 PM

Every day, and still not in the race, every story about Fred Thompson just makes him look better and better.

Ah, and when he did run for ALbore's old seat, he garnered a 20% lead over the Bonkey mud slinger.

Sometimes, slinging mud is a useless exercise.

And, party platforms? Give me a break. What are they for? If I remember correctly, (and, I do!) Eisenhower made special attempts, in 1952, to run as a conservative. DIDN'T PRACTICE WHAT HE PREACHED, THOUGH!

I give Fred THompson brains. And, savvy. Will it take an actor, to prove, yet, again, that the American people like stars ... like Bob Hope ... Not necessarily the funniest comdian ... but the most loved. EXCELLENT TIMING!

Ah, to think. In a different age, we could have had Bob Hope competing with Eisenhower, instead of the egg head Adeli Stevenson. What was Adeli's card? Oh, I know. He was smarter than everybody else.

SO? When you're advertised as smarter than everybody else, you lose.

Have fun playing with examples.

Fred Thompson makes this race look hot. And, GUiliani is still in the front. While there's a "bunch up" on that stage between "Jesus loves me" types; and Ron Paul. As if you can tell the single-digit fools apart.

My guess is that things won't tgihten, ahead, until this summer passes.

Oh, one good hint to pelosi: Even though Cindy Sheehan isn't credit-able, lady, you've got problems that are bigger that Dubya's, now. Straight out of the ditch. Too funny. Do platforms and party leaders know anything about politics, these days, anyway?

I think Fred Thompson should come on stage with a plank, a two-by-four. And, say he's "swinging his platform, now." Are ya happy?

Posted by roc ingersol | July 11, 2007 12:45 PM

The platform is not disimilar to a company's mission statement. As someone else has said, managers who dismiss the usefulness of mission statements as a display and their belief that the creator's intended purpose is to expect them to magically transform organizational behavior are likely to be frustrated and see them as an exercise in futility.

Whether Thompson is right or not, his lack of CEO experience prevents him from seeing the possible strategic usefulness of a platform.

Posted by tadams | July 11, 2007 1:21 PM

Do tell what is the point of voting for a party if their is no common goal i.e. a platform? Newt did a great job forcing linguiny spined congressmen to vote for the contract for america which basically WAS the platform for congressional republicans. We need as a party to enforce our platform. Until then, I won't donate to the party, just to individual campaigns. Fred sounds more and more every day like McCain.

Posted by Lou V. | July 11, 2007 1:25 PM


I disagree.

I check the platform to insure the party endorses certain principles. While I can not expect every candidate to adhere to every one of them, the platform states its covenant with the electorate, what binds us to each other, and offers to the nation.

Those principles are:
1. Supporting a Culture of LIfe.
2. Lower tax rates and less government.
3. Defense of our nation and a support of liberty in the world.

This statement of principles should be a strong foundation for us to stand on as Republicans.

If we pull back entirely from any of these, then I would know it is time to disassociate from this party.

It is that important.

Posted by Adjoran | July 11, 2007 1:55 PM

I agree with neo: any importance the party platforms held for anyone outside the activists who draft them ended when the networks cut back convention coverage.

Now, I don't think the networks were necessarily wrong to cut it back. The parties learned from the coverage - especially negative coverage - that they could hurt themselves by exposing intra-party feuds and discord (not uncoincidentally, precisely the sort of thing which made for interesting TV) and began stage-managing their conventions minute by minute. Convention coverage became less of a news and information broadcast and more of a free info-mercial.

Without the old-school dramatic "platform fights" and "floor fights," there wasn't anything to cover except the nomination race, and the modern system of all primaries has ensured the nomination is a foregone conclusion long before the convention is called to order. The networks cover about what they should now, giving about equal time to each party. (Sure, their biases still come through, but that is a separate issue). There's no news to be had, though.

Let's face it: if a voter doesn't know what the Republicans and Democrats basically stand for and what the essential differences are, they really have no business anywhere near a voting booth. Stay home, watch American Idol reruns or google up Paris Hilton gossip on the internet.

Posted by Skip | July 11, 2007 2:26 PM

The platform is hugely different from a mission statement. Have you actually read the platform? Here's the most recent one:


It's 92 pages long. If a company had a 92 page mission statement I'd know to sell them short constantly, because there's no way that a company can use anything like that as a "focus".

The "statement of principles" should be no more than 1 page.

Posted by Lou V. | July 11, 2007 2:46 PM


I disagree.

The Republican elected leadership today contains:

George W. Bush
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Rudy Giuliani
Susan Collins
John McCain
Dick Cheney
Chuck Hagel

There is a vast difference on many key issues in America today among these and other Republican politicians. Can a voter be blamed if they can not state what it means to be a Republican?

In fact, an educated voter may be even more confused.

Call it what you may, but we need a conservative platform, a revisited Contract with America, or what ever you wish, to distinguish ourselves with clarity.

Posted by Warren Bonesteel | July 11, 2007 6:54 PM

A party platform is essentially a series of "issues statements." Ideally, those statements are founded upon the principles which the party claims to promote and live up to. When the issues statements take precedence over the underlying principles, you've all but lost your way.

What happens when putting together a party platform is that it often seems as if everyone (and their grandmas, their dogs, their cats, the next door neighbor, the drunk down the road, that geeky teenage kid from the other side of town, and the ubiquitous man on the street), walk into the discussions with their own version of a party platform. None of them can agree on anything. All of them want to argue endlessly. All of them want to be in charge. At the same time. Or Else.

The end result is that egos and reputations are assaulted, the ad homs and character assassinations begin. Like little kids, in the end, everyone wants to take their ball and go home.

Done in this fashion, a party platform is a pointless exercise, if you actually want to achieve anything... say...like winning elections.

This is exactly what was happening within the Republican Party during the late eighties and early nineties.

This is why Perot was able to gain the support that he did...and why Clinton eventually won the White House.

The Republicans couldn't reach a consensus about where to put simple conjunctions in the party platform. They became issues oriented...instead of principles oriented.

While we decry Clinton's parsing of the word "is," Republicans got caught up in defining the meaning of "inclusive," principles be damned.

At the time, Thompson's statements made perfect sense. Rephrased: "Let's stop with the internecine squabbling and actually get something done. Shall we?"

In many ways, Republicans today are still caught up in "issues statements" instead of relying upon, and openly declaring, their supposed principles.

(Oversimplified for brevity.)

Posted by LifeWorthFightingFor | July 11, 2007 10:20 PM

Captain, What part of " A young woman should decide with her doctor and parents" is not a "Pro-Choice" statement.

Constantly claiming Fred was NOT pro-choice makes it harder for him.

But my big question is this, where is this man's passion? As best I can tell the only thing he was truly passionate about while a Senator was McCain/Feingold.

Posted by Bob Waters | July 12, 2007 4:54 PM

A party platform is a long, rambling piece of rhetoric (the last one was 92 pages long)nobody reads or pays attention to once it is adopted..

A statement of principles, to be useful, ought to be no more than a page long. Such a statement would have an actual impact on the campaign,, and provide voters with a reasonable means of ascertaining what the party actually stands for.

Thick, wordy platforms do not. As usual, Fred Thompson is right on the money.

Oh. and btw, anybody who thinks Fred Thompson lacks passion about conservative issues hasn't been paying attention to him, or isn't being honest. And CEO experience is vastly overrated. Jimmy Carter had it.