We Read the Republican Platform So You Don’t Have To

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A Republican flag where Donald Trump was awarded Statesman of the Year by the Sarasota Republican Party at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Fla., Aug. 26, 2012. The opening day of the Republican National Convention in nearby Tampa was canceled Saturday ahead of the storm. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)


“Have you ever met anybody who has read the party platform?” John Boehner scoffed Monday. “I’ve not ever met anybody.” Boehner has a point. The 2012 Republican platform is neither widely read nor binding. But it is an important document, a dense statement of first principles and an antidote to a campaign waged with abstractions. It bears the fingerprints of two men, neither of whom is Mitt Romney. Above all, it’s an official marker of just how conservative the GOP has become. Here are five things you should know about the new GOP platform:

1. Ron Paul made an impact. A symbolic one, but still: Paul’s ideology has migrated from personal obsession into the party’s mainstream. The platform supports an annual audit of the Federal Reserve and proposes establishing a commission to study tying the dollar to precious metals. For Paulites concerned about the government’s use of drones to spy on citizens, there is a plank to “prevent unwarranted or unreasonable government intrusion through the use of aerial surveillance or flyovers on U.S. soil.” And there are sections devoting to “protecting Internet freedom,” which includes codified opposition to net neutrality.

2. The gun lobby stands unbowed. In the wake of recent mass shootings, even Democrats — cowed by the clout of the NRA — conceded that there was little hope of reining in access to guns. Instead, gun-control proponents have zeroed in on the sale of the high-capacity magazines that killers have used to tragic effect. The GOP rejects this, too. “We oppose legislation that is intended to restrict our Second Amendment rights by limiting the capacity of clips or magazines or otherwise restoring the ill-considered Clinton gun ban,” the authors write.

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3. On social issues, the GOP grows ever more conservative. The platform defines marriage as between one man and one woman, assails an “activist judiciary” for decreeing otherwise at the state level and urges a crackdown on Internet pornography. Separate planks support prayer in public schools and the pubic display of the Ten Commandments as “a reflection of our shared Judeo-Christian heritage.” The party would ban all abortions, asserting that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” While Mitt Romney has said he would permit abortions in the case of rape, Todd Akin is hardly an outlier for arguing otherwise. The base of the party, including Romney’s running mate, is with him.

4. Speaking of Paul Ryan… Four years ago, his “road map” to reform federal health-insurance entitlements received just eight Republican co-sponsors. Now it is party doctrine. The platforms calls “for a transition to a premium-support model for Medicare, with an income- adjusted contribution toward a health plan of the enrollee’s choice.” Ryan’s voucherized model, in other words.

5. The Republican hive mind has some strange obsessions. To be sure, much of the document is given over to codifying familiar GOP orthodoxy on taxes, regulations, spending and immigration. But sprinkled throughout the 50-page document are a grab-bag of planks that reflect the fears of party members. There is an obligatory prohibitions against the use of “foreign law by U.S. courts in interpreting our Constitution and laws,” a reference to the right’s infatuation with Sharia. There’s sweeping opposition to the U.N.’s future imposition of global taxes or control over the Internet. There’s a pledge to preserve the electoral college. One plank warns against ideological bias in the nation’s universities. And the campaign for energy independence wouldn’t be complete without “reducing dependence on foreign imports of fertilizer.” The agricultural lobby wins this round.

How much does all of this matter? Studies suggest it’s more than you may think. In a new Pew Research Center poll, respondents said they were more interested in the GOP platform than the much-anticipated speeches of Romney or Ryan. (It’s worth noting that response bias may be at play in this poll; one can imagine respondents might feel embarrassed to admit they are more interested in a politics than policy.) And according to academics, the GOP’s lurch to the right over the last 30 years, as reflected in the evolution of their platform, may be a harbinger of future struggles.

In a book that will be released later this year, political scientists Robert Erikson of Columbia University and Christopher Wlezian of Temple argue that the more extreme the party platform, the worse the party does at the polls. “We do not argue that voters actually read platforms,” they write. “Rather, our expectation is that the platform scores” — a measure of where their ideology sits on the political continuum — “provide a proxy for the positions of the presidential candidates as seen by the voters.”

In other words, the GOP platform may better reflect Ryan’s ideology than Romney’s. But Romney is the one who owns it.