A Party of Rhetoric
By MAXWELL REINHARDT
It’s become Democratic boilerplate to dismiss conservative reforms as reactionary. So it came as no surprise when President Obama joked that last week’s Republican convention was an old rerun that could’ve been seen on Nick at Nite.
Referring to the party’s emphasis on individualism and devotion to free market economics, Obama said the GOP platform was full of “retreads” and “tired policies,” while at the same time lambasting it as radical.
So which assertion is correct? Party platforms, which are a collection of policies that candidates promise to enact, are often dismissed as meaningless, but they can lend us some insight to the state of a party.
Here is the platform of one political party.
On immigration: “Neither Hispanics nor any other American citizens should be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language.”
On transportation: “Many urban centers of our nation need dependable and affordable mass transit systems. Mass transportation offers the prospect for significant energy conservation. To encourage existing businesses to remain in urban centers and to attract new businesses to urban areas, it is vital that adequate public and private transportation facilities be provided.”
On abortion: “There can be no doubt that the question of abortion, despite the complex nature of its various issues, is ultimately concerned with equality of rights under the law… We recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party.”
This is the platform of the Republican Party that was passed at Ronald Reagan’s convention in 1980. Last week, a spectacular piece in the New York Times outlined the differences between the GOP’s platform from 1980 and the one enacted last week in Tampa.
One plank in the GOP’s 2012 platform affirmed English as the country’s only official language. Another chastised the Obama administration’s transportation policy for “replacing civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit.” The platform did not bother to recognize rifts within the party on the issue of abortion.
The party of 1980 nominated an icon of small government conservatism, but it employed inviting rhetoric. The result was a forty-four state landslide victory. At that time, the Republicans spoke softly, but carried a big stick.
The party of 2012 could not be more different. Last week, the GOP nominated a mushy, Massachusetts moderate who once upon a time supported banning assault weapons and wanted to maintain the country’s abortion on demand status quo.
Even after his convention, Mitt Romney is still trailing behind Obama at 48 percent. He is running against an unpopular president who has presided over 41 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent and who has ballooned the national debt by about $6 trillion, one and a half times the size it was when George W. Bush left office.
This should be a recipe for a Republican victory, but they are losing. They are speaking loudly and carrying a piece of kindling.
In the 1980s, the Republican Party embraced a true conservative platform which, coupled with correct rhetoric won the hearts and minds of millions of Americans.
Reagan’s platform encouraged first-generation Hispanic immigrants to learn English, but it also acknowledged and accommodated those who could not yet speak the language. The percentage of Hispanics who voted for the Republican ticket jumped by nineteen points between 1976 and 1980.
Reagan also supported localized public transportation as a way to help businesses grow and keep families connected.
Perhaps most importantly, Reagan stood strong on hot button issues without turning away independent voters. The Gipper was adamantly anti-abortion, but he didn’t scare off moderates and abortion rights activists.
In this incredibly consequential election, avoiding alienating rhetoric is essential. If the Republican Party is going to attract swing voters, independents, women, and Latinos to the Romney/Ryan ticket, it should follow the example of Ronald Reagan.
It is important to stand on principle, but it is also important to convey ideas in a way that convinces the fence-sitters and the disenchanted. As Frank Luntz put it, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”