The messy alteration of the party platform at the recent Democratic National Convention was a political embarrassment for Democrats and a rhetorical gift to Republicans. But did it mean anything? At a time when presidential candidates so powerfully shape their party’s personality, do these platforms even matter anymore?
In the short term, the answer is no. The platform is generally written by the people who care most about the finer points of party ideology but who are rarely able to exert leverage on the top of the ticket. The dispute about the Democratic plank on Israel is a case in point. Though the party leadership pushed through language declaring that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, there is virtually no chance that recognition of such will become American policy.
Both Democratic and Republican candidates have pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but once in office, they don’t change the U.S. ambassador’s address. They can’t — not until final-status negotiations with the Palestinians define Jerusalem’s boundaries and sovereignty. This plank, like so many others, is an expression of sentiment, perhaps an aspiration, but nothing more.
As if to emphasize the point, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said in 1996 that he hadn’t even read his party’s platform, after its writers rejected his more tolerant position on abortion. Today you hear echoes of that same spin from Mitt Romney’s supporters, in seeking to explain their candidate’s differences with the 2012 GOP platform on abortion and other issues.
But widen the lens historically to compare platforms over time, and the development of each party’s ideology snaps into focus. By tracing the evolution of the major party platforms over the past three decades, it becomes clear that while both parties have shifted rightward on many domestic issues, the Republicans have taken a much sharper turn.
This could explain the stubborn resilience of Milton Himmelfarb’s famous observation that American Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans — in other words, why, after achieving prosperity and power, Jews still tend to vote like the struggling outsiders they once were. It may be that Jews stick with the Democratic Party because the party has moved more to the center with them, in contrast to the lurch further afield made by the Republicans.
To illustrate this point, the Forward compared the two party platforms from 1980 and 2012. Why 1980? That was the presidential election that Republicans most wish to emulate this year, featuring a Democratic incumbent beset by economic challenges at home and an unruly global landscape, especially in the Middle East. It was the year that the president, Jimmy Carter, won a smaller percentage of Jewish votes than any Democrat had in 60 years.
A stroll through that party’s platform reminds you that the liberalism of 30 years ago barely resembles the tempered way the L-word is used today. In 1980, Democrats strongly supported comprehensive, federally funded child care, and insisted on maintaining the federal government’s primary role in sending out welfare checks, rejecting the idea of directing those funds in block grants to the states. On health care, they favored universal health insurance and believed that care should be redistributed to underserved areas.