The Underdogs’ Weapon: Use Policy Platform Fights To Sway Critical Convention Votes

Convention Jae C Hong AP
Jae C Hong/AP

Expect intense fights over the policy platform documents at both parties’ conventions this summer, warns Ed Kilgore, a progressive writer at New York Magazine.

The two parties’ candidates and their deputies will use the pre-convention disputes over their parties’ 2016 policy platforms to maneuver for any advantage they need for the decisive fights over the convention voting-rules and then the actual candidate-picking convention-floor votes, Kilgore warns.

The past could be prelude: ’76 was the last contested convention in either party, and we can, perhaps, learn from it what might happen in Cleveland and/or Philadelphia in July.

One detail from ’76 that is especially worth noting involves the party platform, which became not so much a struggle for the soul of the GOP, but rather a struggle for control of the convention via test votes the Reagan forces staged to embarrass Gerald Ford and remind delegates that their conservative views were better reflected by the Californian. But the real lesson comes from how the Ford team responded: by caving. Here’s an excerpt from the oral history:

[Reagan operative Ernie] Angelo: The week prior to the convention, we were constantly working up ideas for platform changes that we thought we could force a vote on and break some of the poor delegates away from Ford. And just about anything we came up with, the Ford campaign would accept.

[Ford campaign manager Stu] Spencer: My biggest concern was something ideological coming out of the platform committee would help [Reagan’s team] steal the Florida delegation. If [Reagan delegates] wanted it, we said, “Give it to them….”

[Journalist Lou] Cannon: The Ford people just gave the Reagan people the platform. I was in some of those platform committee hearings, and the Ford people were under instructions: Don’t get into a fight. “If they want this on abortion, if they want that on defense, give it to ’em.”

Most notably, Jesse Helms drafted a platform plank entitled “Morality in Foreign Policy” that was a very personal repudiation of the diplomatic style and détente diplomacy of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The egocentric foreign-policy maven pitched multiple hissy fits over it, but Team Ford swallowed that, too.

Read it all here.