Party platforms, particularly state party platforms, do not typically represent the views of a party’s elected officials or those of all registered Republicans or Democrats. They represent the views of a party’s activists.
Since no party ever achieves a majority based exclusively on the votes of its purists and activists, successful candidates never use platforms as campaign operating manuals. They must pay attention to a wider range of opinions—and to various interest groups, if they hope to win a majority. This is why political professionals, professors and most pundits are dismissive of party platforms.
In 2010 the Maine GOP convention rejected the platform proposed by the party’s official platform committee and adopted an “insurrectionary” version written by a group of dedicated libertarians and conservatives from Knox County. MPBN’s A.J. Higgins reflected the reaction of the “mainstream” press in an article entitled “Maine GOP Takes a Turn to the Right”:
“A revolution of sorts rippled through the Portland Expo this last weekend as a core group of delegates to the Republican State Convention essentially hijacked a moderate party platform and replaced it with a more conservative philosophy. Among other things, the platform rejects same-sex marriage and recognizes the sanctity of all life, including the unborn. Most of the delegates celebrated the new platform as a giant step forward for Republicans, but others rejected the fundamentalist principles as completely meaningless.”
Arden Manning, the Democrats’ 2010 campaign coordinator, immediately offered his services as the Republican candidates’ volunteer advisor, urging them to repudiate the platform: “Republican candidates for governor need to make a decision. Do they stand with the fringe that has taken over their party or do they stand with mainstream Mainers?”
He then sent a fund-raising appeal to Democrats announcing that “the new GOP platform reads like an inflammatory conspiracy theory written by paranoid Tea Party members.”
Bowdoin political science Professor Christian Potholm dismissed Arden Manning’s concerns: “It’s absolutely of no significance. The children are allowed to fool around the sandbox of the party platform, and then the people who actually have to get elected go out and they ignore it. They’ve always ignored it in the past, and they’ll always ignore it this fall. Or, if they don’t ignore it, they will lose.”
The press lost interest in the platform after a month. Republican candidates went on to win the governorship and both houses of the legislature without embracing or repudiating the party’s platform. This seems to confirm Professor Potholm’s dismissal, but I argue that over time they reflect important historical trends in the parties’ ideological evolution.
Platforms are written by committees and so include a number of the particular obsessions of certain members. These are embedded in a broader philosophical convictions, which evolve from books and articles. The 2010 GOP platform, re-adopted in 2012 as an afterthought at the end of the convention, and also the platform proposed by the official 2012 platform committee share a central idea: fidelity to the constitutional limits on government powers.
Look beyond the events in Maine and you find a revealing consistency. The first national Republican platform refers to the Constitution 10 times in two pages. The preamble to Maine’s GOP platform is all about constitutional principles. The same is true of the preamble proposed by the official committee.
This emphasis on constitutional limits on the national government is a common feature of the GOP platforms nationwide. Vermont’s GOP platform invokes the Constitution in eight places; New Hampshire’s mentions it in 17 places; Montana’s refers to it 22 times; and Washington state’s 10 times.
In contrast, the Maine Democrats’ 2010 platform contains only three constitutional references. The same is true of their 2012 platform.
All the GOP platforms I mention uphold the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Maine Democrats offer no opinion on the subject.
All the GOP platforms demand respect for the Tenth Amendment’s restrictions on the power of the national government. Maine’s Democrats show no interest in the Tenth’s restrictions on federal powers.
On the contrary, the eight pages in the Democrats’ platform advocate an almost unlimited expansion of governmental powers at the state and national levels. Most importantly it advocates a “Second Bill of Rights”, which includes rights to a useful and remunerative job; to adequate food and clothing and recreation; to a decent home; to adequate medical care; and to a good education.
The original Bill of Rights set limits on the scope of the federal government. The Democrats’ novel bill implies an unlimited expansion of its power. Each of these “rights” imply a claim on the earnings of working Americans. If the government is to deliver them, then the government must pay for them.
The Democratic Party “commits itself, nationally, and as states, to the fundamental principle of fiscal responsibility”, which seems to preclude borrowing still more trillions to pay for these new rights. Yet the only mention of taxes is a reference to “progressive taxation”, which it leaves undefined.
Other than promising to amend the Constitution with, apparently, eight new affirmative amendments, Maine’s Democrats call on the U.S. Congress to pass an amendment restricting the First Amendment’s free speech rights by reversing the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections.
Their platform also opposes any constitutional amendment upholding traditional marriage and “Maintains the integrity of the U.S. and Maine Constitutions by strengthening separation of powers and requiring executive, legislative, and judicial accountability.”
In March 2011 President Obama explained the separation of powers to a meeting of Hispanic activists: “Congress passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president … America is a nation of laws, which means I, as the president, am obligated to enforce the law. I don’t have a choice about that. That’s part of my job.”
It’s part of his job because Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires a president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Those laws are passed by a branch called the Congress of the United States.
In June of this year, President Obama circumvented those laws with an executive order stating that illegal immigrants who were younger than 16 when they entered the country are eligible for a two-year exemption from deportation. An argument can be made for this exemption, but the Constitution has not changed since March 2011, nor have the laws passed by Congress.
What changed was Obama’s approval rating among Hispanics. He had to do something to improve it. You see, his job is no longer to uphold Art. II, Sect. 3. It’s 2012. His job is now to get re-elected.
Do Maine’s Democrats still wish to defend the separation of powers?
Professor John Frary of Farmington is a former candidate for U.S. Congress and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org.