Party platforms rarely get much attention outside the convention halls, and this year’s Republican version is unlikely to be a road map for a Donald Trump White House.
But for Republican congressional candidates looking to distance themselves from their volatile presidential nominee, it could prove to be a valuable document, and increasingly one worth fighting over.
Republicans this year are worried about losing their Senate majority, especially in toss-up states such as Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania that have big blocs of Democrats and independents. And conservative voters — whose strong turnout will be vital in those votes — could have a hard time warming to a presidential candidate whose positions are sometimes at odds with their core beliefs.
So GOP candidates will have the platform, to show that theirs is still the party that for more than 40 years has staunchly favored lower taxes, less government and a muscular defense, and which has fiercely opposed abortion.
The platform can also serve as balm for insiders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, who are holding back their support, waiting to see if Trump adopts firm conservative ideas and unifies the party.
“Usually at this point the nominee has stopped worrying about the base of the party,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. That makes platform-writing almost a rote exercise.
But Trump ran as an outsider and doesn’t really know most of the party players, and so the platform presents “a real opportunity for the Trump campaign to show what it’s thinking, and to unify conservatives,” Schlapp said.
The fear isn’t that those conservatives will turn Democratic. The worry is they won’t vote at all, and that could cost Republicans control of the Senate.
Trump has signaled he’ll side with conservatives and back the appointment of conservative judges, lower tax rates, gun rights and a promise to curb or repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But he has also said he favors abortion in cases involving rape, incest or protecting the life of the mother, though the 2012 GOP platform says flatly that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”
And the most public conflict could involve same-sex marriage. The 2012 platform backed the rights of governments not to recognize same-sex marriage. It also urged a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Trump has a history of being sympathetic to gay rights, and has stated his opposition to a North Carolina law requiring that transgender people use restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.
The other possibility for conflict involves immigration. Republican officials have tried for years to project an image of tolerance and inclusion, and made a strong effort to attract Latino voters after 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Along came Trump, promising to build a huge wall between the United States and Mexico. He ignited a furor during his announcement speech last year when he said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime.”
Trump has tried to soften his image somewhat, posing last week eating a taco bowl and tweeting, “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics.”
Trump hasn’t backed down from his eagerness for a wall, but Republican National Committee Chairman Lance Priebus expressed cautious optimism that Trump will continue to reach out.
“He’s trying, and honestly, he’s trying and I will tell you what — I honestly think he understands that building and unifying and growing the party is the only way we’re going to win,” Priebus told the Politico Playbook breakfast last week, “and I think he gets that.”
Chances are savvy insiders will control the platform process, making adoption of any incendiary ideas a longshot. Their mission will be to produce a strong conservative agenda.
As a result, the outlook for same-sex marriage, and any other attempt to soften the platform’s conservative planks, or insert language insensitive to Mexican-Americans, probably won’t go far.
The goal remains to have a document that candidates up and down the ballot can cite as the Republican party’s manifesto, regardless of Trump.
Remember, said Schlapp, “the platform is always a unifying document for conservatives.”
About the Author