Next week being the Republican National Convention, this week brought that peculiar pre-convention ritual, the platform debate. This is the when party activists of various stripes, behaving as if the outcome is extremely important, negotiate for hours to change a sentence or two in a document that almost no one reads.
Consider the saga of the “unity plank.” The platform’s initial draft contained this nod to intraparty ideological splits:
Steadfast in our commitment to our ideals, we recognize that members of our party can have deeply held and sometimes differing views. This diversity is a source of strength, not a sign of weakness, and so we welcome into our ranks all who may hold differing positions. We commit to resolve our differences with civility, trust, and mutual respect, and to affirm the common goals and beliefs that unite us.
Apostates within the party — chiefly the Republicans For Choice and the Log Cabin Republicans — fought to “strengthen” this language, with their proposed alternative:
We recognize and respect that Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in the party’s platform. This is particularly the case about those planks dealing with abortion, family planning, and gay and lesbian issues. The Republican Party welcomes all people on all sides of these complex issues and encourages their active participation as we work together on those issues upon which we agree.
Finally, a compromise was reached. The final version, a joint proposal by a pro-choice delegate and a pro-life delegate, working with their respective groups:
As the party of the open door, while steadfast in our commitment to our ideals, we respect and accept that members of our party can have deeply held and sometimes differing views. This diversity is a source of strength, not a sign of weakness, and so we welcome into our ranks all who may hold differing positions. We commit to resolve our differences with civility, trust, and mutual respect, and to affirm the common goals and beliefs that unite us.
Earthshaking, no? Republicans no longer merely “recognize” differences within their ranks, but now “respect and accept” them.
Overwrought as the platform kabuki dance is, this plank actually affirms a critical principle. It’s no coincidence that the GOP ascended into power as activists on the left drove pro-life Democrats nearly to extinction. For Republicans to mirror this purge — as some conservatives sometimes seem to want to do — would be electoral suicide in a number of marginal and Democratic-leaning states where the GOP remains competitive.
This isn’t an argument for complete surrender. The country may be divided on cultural issues, but that hasn’t stopped social liberal Arnold Schwarzenegger from succeeding with a balanced budget referendum and forcing Democrats to compromise on workers’ compensation reform in California. Another social liberal, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, is one of only eight governors who has signed the Americans for Tax Reform anti-tax pledge. Gov. Bob Ehrlich has held the line on income taxes in Maryland, including vetoing a tax hike; when he became the first Republican to sign a bill relaxing penalties for medical marijuana, he noted that “there are clearly two wings of the party on social issues. One is more conservative, and one is more libertarian. I belong to the latter, and I always have.” The constituents of the remaining Rockefeller Republicans — named, lest we forget, for the governor who first gave New York its sales and income taxes — would be better served by Republicans in that libertarian mold; their antipathy to strongly conservative politicians is almost entirely cultural.
All that said, activists touting the party’s ideological diversity would do well to learn some humility. Patrick Guerriero, the Log Cabin Republicans’ Executive Director, does himself no favors when he undermines the rhetoric of “unity,” as he did in the press release announcing the push for the unity plank, by drawing a distinction between “inclusive voices” — Schwarzenegger, Rudy Giuliani– and “the voices of exclusion” — Gary Bauer, Rick Santorum. As frustrated as a gay activist like Guerriero might be with Santorum, such name calling does not help us “work together on those issues upon which we agree.”