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The Republican Party should stand for something. How can the party ask voters to give it the power to act on its principles and policies if it can’t be bothered to say what they are?
To be sure, the platforms of modern American political parties are often intensively negotiated word salads read only by the party’s enemies. In 2016, the Republican platform’s language about Ukraine kicked up a campaign controversy and was dragged into investigations for no good reason. Moreover, the in-person meetings that usually produce the platform could not be held during a pandemic. Still, the Democrats churned out both a 92-page formal party platform and a 110-page statement of recommendations issued by the Biden–Sanders unity task force. There is little doubt that the Democrats have a very long list of things they wish to do with power, and the will to make them happen.
By contrast, in lieu of a party-wide Republican statement, the Trump–Pence campaign released “President Trump’s Second Term Agenda.” It is better understood as a series of aspirations, with little sense of how the powers of government might plausibly be used to achieve any of these goals. Thus, we are told, a reelected Trump would “Create 10 Million New Jobs in 10 Months,” “Return to Normal in 2021,” “Cut Prescription Drug Prices,” “Protect Social Security and Medicare,” “Wipe Out Global Terrorists Who Threaten to Harm Americans,” and “Partner with Other Nations to Clean Up our Planet’s Oceans.” How are voters supposed to evaluate a fuzzy and stilted pledge such as “Drain the Globalist Swamp by Taking on International Organizations That Hurt American Citizens”?
Other promises involve issues that might be suitable for a party platform, but not a presidential agenda, such as “End Cashless Bail” or “Teach American Exceptionalism.” There is one genuinely interesting promise — to “Provide School Choice to Every Child in America” — but there has been little indication from the White House of how that might be done. More, please.
Meanwhile, there is no mention of human life, religious liberty, the courts, or other issues of great importance to many Republican voters.
Nobody has ever accused Donald Trump of being a details man, and there is no need for him to match the Democrats line-for-line. But at least his 2016 campaign at had a few easily summarized proposals, such as “build the wall.” A party platform also provides organizing themes for state parties, not just the presidential campaign. A platform for Republicans in 2020 could easily have taken the form of early party platforms that stated broad visions in simple language that could be printed on a single broadsheet page. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” was a fine modern example of concisely framing the policy stakes.
Instead, the campaign statement appears to suggest that the platform is Trump himself. With Trump’s approval ratings still lagging, that is a dubious political choice; Republicans would be better served to focus voters’ attention on the real differences between the two parties, especially for the benefit of down-ticket candidates in jurisdictions Trump is unlikely to carry. Worse, it suggests that Republicans may miss the opportunity to fully take advantage of a victory in November.
It’s been a hallmark of our era that institutions that should be jealous of their prerogatives and self-respect have willingly given them away when politically convenient. This has been especially true of Congress, and now the Republican Party is guilty of the same institutional self-abasement.