Marketable Baskets of Issues

This essay was originally published in the August 25, 1980 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

The parties stand for plenty—and are far apart

Is it the best of times or is it the worst of times? That all depends on which party platform you read and believe.

And indeed they are written for the true believer, for they admit of no possible party flaw. If there are national problems, those are the fault of the other party, which is castigated at length. As Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional commentator Mr. Dooley noted of a practiced platform writer, “Whin he can denounce an ‘deplore no longer, he views with alarm an’ declares with indignation.”

So many planks are crammed into the platform to satisfy different interest groups that Barry Goldwater once dismissed the whole exercise as a “packet of misinformation and lies.” Presidential candidates have frequently repudiated their party platforms. In 1864 the Democratic platform called for an immediate end to the Civil War, but Party Nominee George McClellan insisted on continuing the fight against the Confederacy. Franklin Roosevelt piled up record deficits in office despite his 1932 party platform’s call for a balanced budget. In 1971 Richard Nixon totally ignored the G.O.P. platform when he imposed wage and price controls and announced, “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”

Yet every four years, party members battle over their platforms as if they were writing another Constitution. They demand that certain planks be added, others withdrawn, and insist on nuances that would baffle the most finicky pedant. The fact is that platforms are greater than the sum of their planks. They indicate the direction in which a party is heading; at the least they exercise a subliminal influence on the nominee and, if he is elected, on his policies. Occasionally, vital issues are at stake. The refusal of the Republican Party to compromise with slavery in 1860 marked a turning point in American history; so did the adoption by the Democrats of the “free silver”* plank in 1896. The struggle over the Viet Nam War plank at the 1968 Democratic Convention split the party and led to Nixon’s election.

This year’s platforms offer quite clear alternatives, two distinct views of life and Government. Basically, the Democrats support an activist, interventionist Government, while the Republicans want to reduce the federal presence. Declares the G.O.P.: “Government’s power to take and tax, to regulate and require, has already reached extravagant proportions. Divided, leaderless, unseeing, uncomprehending, Democratic politicians plod on with listless offerings of pale imitations of the same policies they have pursued so long, knowing full well their futility.”

Democrats, on the other hand, maintain that they have “put the Federal Government back in the business of serving our people.” Their platform boasts of the additional spending under Jimmy Carter: “Funding for education up 75% over the Ford budget; Head Start up 73%, basic skills programs up 233%, bilingual education up 113%, Native American education up 124%, summer jobs up 66%, Medicare up 54%, National Health Service Corps up 179%, Women, Infants and Children Program up 300%.”

On all of the major issues, the parties offer dramatically contrasting positions:

The victory of the Kennedy minority report at the convention puts the Democratic Party behind a $12 billion antirecession program to create at least 800,000 additional jobs. The party also pledges not to fight inflation by any policy that will lead to high interest rates or substantially increased unemployment. Thus the assembled Democrats place unemployment ahead of inflation as the nation’s chief economic problem.

Carter refused to accept the precise program but promised to uphold its “spirit and aims.” Rosalynn Carter told TIME:

“I don’t know how they will vote $12 billion when we tried so hard to get $2 billion more for new employment, and both houses of Congress went home without doing it.”

The Republicans blame the Democrats’ inflationary policies, which they say have stifled growth in productivity, for the current unemployment. The G.O.P. urges “a bold program of tax rate reductions, spending restraints and regulatory reforms that will inject new life into the economic bloodstream of this country.”

This is the basic G.O.P. cure-all for most of the ills that afflict the nation. Say the Republicans: “American families are already paying taxes at higher rates than ever in our history; as a result of Carter’s policies, the rates will go even higher.” The platform calls for the Kemp-Roth cut of 30% in federal income tax rates over three years, a reduction opposed by the Democrats on the ground that the rich would save more money in taxes than the poor. The Republicans also propose indexing taxes to the inflation rate to eliminate bracket creep; this would end the automatic tax increase that occurs when someone gets a pay raise that only keeps up with inflation.

Stressing “fairness” as the “overriding principle” of its economic policies, the Democratic Party seeks tax reductions only if they are not inflationary; that is, only if they would not lead to a larger budget deficit. The Democrats also continue to urge tax reform: the closing of $9 billion in loopholes, including such business deductions as the so-called three-martini lunch, which was a special Carter target during the 1976 campaign.

While admitting the necessity for a certain degree of spending restraint, the Democrats urge a number of costly new initiatives to assist America’s needy: comprehensive national health insurance, federal takeover of state and local welfare programs, a “massive increase” in urban programs. Pointing to the Carter Administration’s record of placing more women, blacks and Hispanics in high federal office and the judiciary than any other Administration in history, the party promises to do even better in the future.

The Republicans would rely much more on the free market to assist those in need. The platform states: “Our fundamental answer to the economic problem of black Americans is the same answer we make to all Americans — full employment without inflation through economic growth.” The G.O.P. wants to establish free-enterprise zones in blighted urban areas, where new job-creating businesses would be encouraged through lower taxes and reduced Government regulation. The G.O.P. pledges to take “positive steps” to help other minorities — specifically people of Eastern and Southern European background — to “share the power as well as the burdens of our society.”

The Democrats not only ardently support the ERA, they also adopted a much criticized minority plank barring party financial aid to any House and Senate candidates who do not back the amendment.

Though the G.O.P. has favored ERA in the past, this year’s platform fudged the issue — after stormy convention debate in Detroit — by declaring that it is up to the states to decide whether to guarantee equal rights to women. While the G.O.P. supports a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion, the Democrats urge that women should be allowed free choice.

They seek public funds to pay for the abortions of poor women, a policy that Carter has opposed.

The Democrats take six pages to enumerate all of the programs they envision to improve the quality of teaching and assure equal access to learning in America. Says the platform: “We must begin to think of federal expenditures as capital investments.” The platform also supports, as a tool of last resort, the “mandatory transportation of students beyond their neighborhoods,” i.e., busing. The Republicans claim that the Federal Government is already much too involved in education. They oppose forced busing as a “prescription for disaster because of its divisive impact.” The Republicans believe that the newly created Department of Education should be abolished. The party also calls for income tax tuition credits for parents who send their children to private schools.

The Democratic platform contains just about everything that organized labor asks for: repeal of section 14b of the Taft-Hartley law, which allows states to pass right-to-work laws forbidding union shops; revision of the Hatch Act to permit federal employees to engage in political activity; no modification of the minimum wage or of the Davis-Bacon Act, which prevents federal contractors from paying less than the prevailing wage rates in their area; no weakening of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has set regulations that often seem onerous and absurd to business.

The Republicans promise to improve the economic climate and thus to create more jobs, but offer few specifics. The G.O.P. supports 14b, an old Reagan cause.

It also favors letting employers pay less than the minimum wage to youths, with the aim of creating more job opportunities for the group with the highest rate of unemployment in the U.S. The platform roundly condemns the “arbitrary and highhanded tactics” of OSHA and recommends restricting the federal agency to monitoring only the most hazardous conditions in the workplace.

The Republicans call for a firm stand against Soviet aggression and for higher defense spending. But the Democrats, in a dramatic turn-around from their 1976 platform, which insisted on military budget cuts, also urge the strengthening of U.S. defenses. Both parties, in fact, blame each other for letting Pentagon expenditures lag. Both also favor building the MX missile, though a sizable minority of Democrats were bitterly opposed. The Democrats fault the Republicans for emphasizing the “primacy of power politics” at the cost of American principles. The Democrats also call for more aid to the Third World: “It is unacceptable that the U.S. ranks 13th among 17 major industrial powers in percentage of G.N.P. devoted to developmental assistance.”

Maintaining that the Carter Administration has lacked a “coherent strategic concept to guide foreign policy,” the G.O.P. considers the President’s human rights campaign to be naive and dangerous. The Republicans assert that the policy has scarcely improved life in Communist nations and severely penalized some U.S. allies with “the loss of U.S. commercial access and economic and military assistance.” Says the G.O.P.: “We will return to the fundamental principle of treating a friend as a friend and self-proclaimed enemies as enemies.”

SALT II The Democrats describe the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty as a “major accomplishment” and promise to seek ratification as soon as possible. The Republicans denounce the pact as “fundamentally flawed.” The G.O.P. platform insists that the U.S. ultimately achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union, a position that would appear to rule out serious arms-control negotiations.

Thanks to these weighty platforms, both parties have enough ammunition to fire at each other for the next four years.

They may not use all of it, of course, and some of the shots may misfire. Platforms are at the disposal of the presidential candidates, who can appropriate as much or as little of them as they please. They have even been known to dip into the enemy camp for supplies. Still, this year’s platforms, hammered out with diligence and zeal, are an eloquent refutation of the canard that parties in America do not stand for anything. They stand for plenty — and they stand apart.

*An inflationary measure that was favored by Western farmers and silver miners.

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