Special Report

The Coming Conservative Platform Fight

Former UN Ambassador Bolton on the realities of the 2008 GOP convention.

By 1.21.08

The 2008 Republican platform "will be very important for conservatives," says America's former Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

Listening to the familiar voice over the phone, I thought back in time to the first moment I discussed a Republican platform with Bolton. It was the summer of 1984, and the man who would become famous for telling the North Koreans, the Iranians, and all those hilariously snooty elitists at the United Nations where to get off was, early in his career, telling me a politer version of the same thing.

Why? Bolton was the newly appointed executive director of the Committee on Resolutions -- the Platform Committee -- of the 1984 Republican National Convention. This was the convention that would gather in Dallas to re-nominate President Ronald Reagan. My then boss, former Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis (known to history as the man who advised Reagan to fire the striking air traffic controllers), had been assigned by the White House to represent the President in the writing of the GOP Platform. Lewis asked me, as his chief of staff, to start with the obvious -- reading the current platform draft that had been written by Bolton's committee staff. There was, we quickly discovered, an obstacle to this seemingly simple task. Determined to keep the platform draft confidential -- even from the White House! -- Bolton refused my request.

As it turned out, I was not alone. Not only could a representative of the White House not get a copy of the initial draft, neither could various party luminaries elected to the Platform Committee. One congressman complained to the media that the platform draft was "the best kept secret since the Manhattan project."

After some skirmishing in which the White House impressed upon Bolton and his then boss, Platform Committee chairman and Mississippi Congressman Trent Lott, that President Reagan had a considerable interest in seeing to it that whatever was said in the Platform jibed with administration policy, the problem was quickly straightened out. I got my draft, and began living with every jot and tittle as the process ground forward. In spite of our clash, my respect for both Bolton's ability and his devotion to conservative principles was sealed on the spot. The summer was spent with both of us and a gradually expanding group of Reaganites beyond his staff reading, re-reading -- and writing and re-writing -- every single paragraph, line and, quite literally, every punctuation mark that would express with precision the platform upon which Ronald Reagan would stand for re-election. Eventually that draft was turned over to the Platform Committee itself when it finally assembled in Dallas.

THERE'S MORE TO THE POINT here than this simple anecdote. What John Bolton was about that summer was seeing to it that the 1984 Republican Platform did not just become one more White House policy paper like a State of the Union speech. Which is to say a document drafted by government bureaucrats, any number of whom were not only not conservatives but had an open hostility to the conservative movement. Bolton saw the platform as a vital document that could forthrightly state conservative principles, both in the moment and well into the future. The reason Bolton was saying no to me was that he understood at a core level that the 1984 platform, the platform on which Ronald Reagan as the leader of the modern conservative movement would run for re-election, was not just another election year document. Bolton had already figured out, as he would say years later in his book, the depressing reality that the "political" leadership of the executive branch was more intent on endorsing what they had done in office than reaffirming the principles underlying the entire Reagan presidency.

I represented the "White House." The "White House" is, of course, in reality a building filled with a lot more people than just the president. In fact it was the nerve center of the entire federal government, the federal establishment even in Reagan's Washington well stocked with non-conservatives. Ergo, giving me a copy was opening the door to the possibility that the conservative principles Reagan had campaigned on in 1980 -- and wanted to campaign on again in 1984 -- were at risk of being watered down in the initial platform drafts to please GOP liberals, moderates, self-congratulating office-holders or even worse, conservative-hating professional bureaucrats. Which in turn meant that the future of the conservative movement would be compromised, the platform interpreted as the farthest-most edge of legitimate conservatism.

As Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker, a leading GOP liberal and Platform Committee member would eventually confess, "what's involved here is 1988." Meaning, this platform was really about the future of the Republican Party and conservatism in the GOP after Reagan. It was not only about 1988, Bolton realized, it was about the long-term future of conservatism period -- a future that is at this the moment -- 24 years later -- the present.

BOLTON WASN'T ALONE, of course. North Carolina's Senator Jesse Helms arrived in Dallas telling the media that he would "not let go unchallenged" anything in the platform that contradicted what the New York Times referred to as "the conservative philosophy he shares with Mr. Reagan." Helms pointedly noted that he had been asked by the White House to sit in on these sessions, which was decidedly true. Drew Lewis had seen to that. So too, with the same purpose, were several young conservative congressman on the platform scene, led by Georgia's Newt Gingrich, New York's Jack Kemp, and Minnesota's Vin Weber.

As we watch the 2008 Republican primary season unfold, the questions no one is paying attention to are the same as they were when Bolton and I were haggling in 1984 -- except even more so. They were the central reason for the presence back then of Helms, and the young rebels Gingrich, Kemp and Weber. What will the 2008 Republican Platform say? How true to conservative principles will it be? How can conservatives ensure that when it comes time to write the Republican platform 24 years from now the same care is taken to specifically reflect the core conservative principles that Bolton and others took so much time with 24 years ago?

Indeed, is the point of the whole exercise to be kind to President Bush -- or will it take issue with some administration policies that conservatives feel are off-principle? Will the Bush White House team be insisting on inserting language that ratifies the Bush policies on Iraq, where conservatives would presumably agree, but also on Iran and North Korea, where Bolton and others might object? What about government spending, immigration, and other issues? Will the prospective nominee insist that the platform represent not conservative principles but his own personal worldview, attempting however subtly to walk away from the conservative principles Ronald Reagan fought so hard to instill? Principles that are not about Reagan himself but rather about the political law of gravity that is conservatism.

If there's anything that has been apparent at Republican Conventions since at least 1960, when nominee-to-be Vice President Richard Nixon met to secretly hatch platform strategy with rival New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in Rockefeller's Fifth Avenue apartment, it's that conservatives consider the platform of America's conservative party theirs to write. Nixon's secret meeting with the liberal Rocky, dubbed "The Compact of Fifth Avenue," set off howls of rage from conservatives -- who were at that very moment gathered at the site of the Chicago convention writing what they assumed would be the actual platform. When a Rockefeller press release revealed that Nixon and his liberal rival had other ideas, and that Rockefeller's demands were to be inserted in the already drafted document, the reaction was an instant firestorm. Barry Goldwater promptly called a press conference in Chicago, labeling the Compact a "surrender" to liberalism and the "Munich of the Republican Party." The Convention briefly flew out of control, with conservatives and the platform committee now in open revolt, cries of "treason" to principle in the air. In the end, the platform issue was resolved, but the aftertaste was bitter.

Ever since, conservatives have massed themselves for Republican platform gatherings with the kind of attention to detail worthy of Eisenhower's planning of D-Day. Hence the young Mr. Bolton's instant hostility to what seemed to me a very simple request. A quiet lunch with Bolton, myself, and our respective bosses Lott and Lewis and movement and White House stayed on the same page for the duration (admittedly with some difficulty). Longtime conservatives Charlie Black and Martin Anderson quickly took a hand, working tirelessly on this project. As events turned out, Bolton was an unsung hero of that platform battle, displaying all the qualities that would later make him famous as the most effective U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations since Reagan's outspoken Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bolton's friend. He was outspoken, blunt -- and always on conservative point.

SO WHO BETTER TO ASK about the shaping of the upcoming 2008 Republican Platform than John Bolton? Catching him as his new book Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations begins its climb up the bestseller list, I asked him for his thoughts on the platform process and its importance in expressing conservative ideas irrespective of an incumbent president and a new nominee. And of course, I couldn't resist asking right at the start whether he would be willing to testify at a platform hearing on American foreign policy.

He certainly sounded ready to do just that. Unsurprisingly, the now former Ambassador is eager for the opportunity to play a role in 2008. While acknowledging that the platform of any American political party does not have quite the same impact as it would have in Britain's parliamentary system, the platform of a U.S. party, he says, still counts. He pointed out that after a two-term presidency the process gives conservatives a chance "to gather themselves," something he knows first-hand can be "quite helpful."

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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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.