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The 1984 platform that Bolton worked on certainly bears out the importance of this. The issues of the day were a vivid incarnation of the three components of what is now known as the Reagan coalition — social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national security conservatives. They included abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, tax increases, and Reagan’s military build-up, the latter issue known to delegates by the Cold War short-hand of “peace through strength.” Liberals like Weicker and others favored blurring the differences between conservatives and liberals, compromising allegedly “extremist” views to win the votes of liberals and Democrats. Conservatives were insistent that this approach was not true to the party’s core principles and in any event had repeatedly failed. The sharper and more distinct the conservative party of Reagan was to the liberal party of Mondale the better off conservatism and the Republican Party, two groups that were not exactly synonymous, would be.
On each of these issues there were GOP “moderates” (read: liberals) who were there to insist that from Reagan on down the line, through the prominent elected conservative leaders and ending with that irritating staff guy Bolton, the platform’s bold proclamation of conservative principles was a mistake. Former Eisenhower Cabinet member Arthur Fleming pleaded with delegates to support the idea of a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union. On social issues, moderate Maine Representative Olympia Snowe led a group insisting that the Committee would make a “serious error” in refusing to re-instate support for the Equal Rights Amendment for women. There was also a move to support federal funding for abortion. All of these efforts met with an overwhelming defeat, leaving the moderates aghast and predicting electoral disaster.
But the real battle royal was over economic policy. Moderates wanted to leave room for the President to undo his famous tax cuts, the very same tax cuts that were the backbone of conservative economic principle. Raising taxes, they made plain, was not such a bad thing. Conservatives were having none of it, and the battle was launched onto the network newscasts and the front pages of the national papers.
The President, out at his ranch, sent diplomatic word that he would consider a tax increase only as a “last resort.” Loving the President, and suspecting his White House chief of staff James Baker and Baker’s deputy, Richard Darman, of siding with the moderates, the conservative majority on the committee made clear such talk was a non-starter. It was precisely the kind of monkey-business Bolton was concerned about, and so was I. Darman was so controversial that phone calls between him and Lewis and at least one with me were not even mentioned for fear of a leak inflaming the committee.
Some committee conservatives were even less trusting of then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole. Dole bluntly said that the conservative approach of opposing tax increases — period — would enable Democratic nominee Walter Mondale to have a “field day” convincing Americans that Reagan’s economic policy was a disaster. Gingrich quickly snapped that Dole viewed his job as merely being “the tax collector for the welfare state.” Elaborating, the future Speaker said Dole was offering “an automatic, old-time Republican answer” to the tax issue. “He is saying, the Democrats raise taxes a lot, and we raise taxes a little.” Dole was furious. It was hot outside in Dallas, but it was getting hotter still in the platform sessions and all the closed-to-the press anterooms.
The tax increase problem was magically solved by the insertion of a simple comma in the tax language, making the section read: “We therefore oppose any attempt to increase taxes, which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend toward restoring control of the economy to individual Americans.” The comma, as you can see, came between the words “taxes” and “which” — and suddenly peace was at hand.
THE POINT IN THIS RE-TELLING is that all of this back and forth, and the starkly principled conservative platform that resulted from the efforts of Bolton and so many others, worked. Reagan, running flat-out and proudly on this platform, carried 49 states, and came within a hair of defeating Mondale in his own Minnesota. As with the 1980 platform, the 1984 document was part of the intellectual foundation that helped change America.
Conservatives understood the meaning of this victory, although not everyone else did. The Times reported that GOP moderates were later convinced the reason for Reagan’s overwhelming victory was his personality, not his principles as expressed in the platform. Weicker, deeply unhappy at the platform, threatened moderates would “take over the party someday” from conservatives. There was another group of people unhappy with the platform, and they were watching these deliberations closely. The Soviet Union put out official word that the platform was a “kiddy language document.” The Republican platform would “isolate” the United States and “do nothing to improve relations with the Soviet Union.” It did nothing but promote “confrontation” and in doing so this meant that Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement was “playing with fire.” Reagan, the Soviet government huffed, had made “inane statements which have sent shivers down the spine of people in many nations, especially in Europe.”
Not to put too fine a point on this, but Mr. Weicker, busy promoting himself as a liberal Republican disdainful of conservatives, later lost his seat to a conservative Democrat named Joe Lieberman. The Soviet Union is now unavailable for comment.
SO WHAT DOES JOHN BOLTON, the upstart staffer of the 1984 Platform Committee/become UN Ambassador see ahead for the 2008 GOP platform? The Bush administration, Bolton says, “will try to push its agenda” on the committee and the delegates. And the platform once again “becomes a surrogate battle” for all the candidates that are currently on the field.
It isn’t hard at this point to see exactly what Bolton sees. The White House will be seeking a traditional pat on the back for the president. But there could easily be, as Bolton points out, delegates fuming over, for example, the Bush administration’s domestic spending record or some other administration policy that conservatives perceive as a flight from principle. And surely no one is going to silence Bolton himself as he updates the delegates on the committee with his much-publicized views on the defects of American policy with North Korea and Iran, or the cultural structure of the State Department. It would be hard to imagine that he will not be well received. All of this in turn will doubtless give the White House platform team hourly migraines as they work, unlike the White House team of 1984, with the dwindling power of a presidency running out of time.
Bolton told me he has endorsed no candidate in the primaries. But whichever one emerges victorious, he believes the nominee will face a problem similar to those of the White House. This is a point that goes to the essence of Lowell Weicker’s vow about moderates one day taking over the party — and the platform. Has that day arrived? Not without a huge platform fight. There is as yet no one named to chair the Committee, a first step in understanding the shape of a fight. Will the chair be a conservative as was Lott — or a moderate devoted to the new nominee? If the nominee is McCain, there will surely be delegates clamoring to get the platform on record supporting the principle behind the Bush tax cuts, a principle McCain opposed. One can only imagine the debate that will ignite over McCain’s views on global warming, not to mention immigration and McCain-Feingold. In McCain’s case, his well-known proclivity for challenging the Bush White House could be turned around on him, with conservative delegates, citing McCain’s own rebellious example, feeling perfectly free to challenge the platform of a prospective President McCain. Ditto Huckabee and his populism, Giuliani and abortion and gay rights and so on. It takes very little imagination to see the outlines of one of the most contentious platform fights since the Nixon-Rockefeller “Compact of Fifth Avenue” disaster of 1960.
As for John Bolton, he will be in the interesting position of knowing this process inside and out — and now having serious foreign policy experience in hand along with a captive audience pre-disposed to listen to, and write into platform language, his very well-known and very well-covered views. He will also know intimately something conservatives across America will come to understand: that if the basic principles of conservatism are to be redefined into non-conservatism, or the personal views of McCain, Huckabee, Giuliani or Romney, the attempt will, quite literally word for word, be made in the 2008 Republican platform.
The cable networks and talk radio hosts will be having a field day with the 2008 GOP platform battle. Bolton ends his book by repeating advice he was once given to think of himself as a battleship. The trick, he was told, is to keep moving — and keep firing. As the St. Paul Convention slowly comes into view, bringing with it the fight over the shape of the 2008 Republican Platform and the future of the conservative movement, one thing is very clear.
John Bolton is moving — and he’s ready to fire. Surely, he will not be alone.
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