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Partisan politics and the party platform

The 2012 Repub­lican National Con­ven­tion con­cludes Thursday evening in Tampa, Fla., where del­e­gates have already offi­cially selected Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the Grand Old Party’s nom­i­nees for pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent. But the week leading up to the RNC was fraught with polit­ical con­tro­versy. The newly released draft of the Repub­lican Party plat­form, for example, includes con­tro­ver­sial tenets on abor­tion, immi­gra­tion and tax reform, prompting one New York Times edi­to­ri­alist to declare: “The mean-​​spirited and intol­erant plat­form rep­re­sents the face of Repub­lican pol­i­tics.” We asked two experts — William Mayer, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and William Crotty, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life, both in the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties — to expound upon the polit­ical land­scape just nine weeks out from the pres­i­den­tial election.

Controversial remarks on rape and pregnancy made by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri have temporarily shifted the nation’s focus from economic issues such as the budget deficit and tax reform to social issues such as abortion and women’s rights. The shift, some experts say, may prompt swing voters to side with President Obama in the November election. Going forward, how should the GOP handle Akin’s imbroglio in order to maximize the party’s appeal?

MAYER: Obvi­ously, the best out­come for the Repub­lican Party would be for Akin to with­draw and allow the party to put a more elec­table can­di­date in his place. Unfor­tu­nately, that will require Akin him­self to agree to step down and he appears to be quite stub­born on this point.  So Repub­lican leaders are doing the next best thing: denouncing his state­ment, pub­licly urging him to with­draw, not giving him any cam­paign money and oth­er­wise putting as much dis­tance as pos­sible between Akin and the rest of the party.

Even if Akin doesn’t with­draw, I strongly doubt that this issue will matter much come November. In many years, some aspect of the abor­tion issue has become a major topic in the news — yet post-​​election polls invari­ably show that abor­tion is an impor­tant issue only for a very small part of the elec­torate, typ­i­cally in the range of about 1 to 2 per­cent. It is hard to imagine that things will be dif­ferent this year, when so many voters are (for good reason) very con­cerned about the state of the economy. Finally, Demo­c­ratic pos­turing notwith­standing, I think most voters are smart enough to know that Akin’s state­ments do not rep­re­sent the views of the Romney campaign.

New Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News polls of three swing states — Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, the site of this week’s RNC — underscored the unpopularity of the Romney-Ryan Medicare overhaul. What are the chances that Romney wins the presidency if voters who may very well decide the election view a major tenet of his economic policy as a failure?

MAYER: I think the Repub­li­cans will take some hits for their posi­tion on Medicare. That said, there are a number of fac­tors that will cushion the blow, assuming they are prop­erly com­mu­ni­cated to the electorate. First, Pres­i­dent Obama also pro­posed cut­ting Medicare, in his case to fund other aspects of his health­care bill. Second, the “cuts” are much less sub­stan­tial than they are por­trayed to be by the Democrats. Those cur­rently receiving Medicare will not be affected at all. Those who will become eli­gible will have the option of staying with the cur­rent system. (My sense of the polling evi­dence, by the way, is that the extent of pop­ular dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Romney-​​Ryan plan depends to a great extent on how the survey ques­tion is worded.)

Finally, there is also a wide­spread per­cep­tion that, what­ever its cur­rent pop­u­larity, Medicare is in long-​​term trouble, with tril­lions of dol­lars in unfunded liabilities. Romney and Ryan have at least pro­posed a serious plan to deal with these prob­lems; Obama has entirely ducked the issue. Put it all together, and I think the Medicare issue is some­thing of a wild card. It might hurt the Repub­li­cans; it might not. It depends in part on the way the issue is cov­ered and explained in the media. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the media will prob­ably pro­vide cov­erage that is heavily slanted in Obama’s favor. A good example is the well-​​known Poli­ti­Fact web­site main­tained by the Tampa Bay Times, which, its claims of non-​​partisanship notwith­standing, has basi­cally become a shill for the Obama campaign.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who chaired the RNC platform committee, noted that the party platform “matters if people read it, and we wish more people would read it.” Some policy and legislative experts, on the other hand, have called the party platform “a source of scripture in policy-making” and a “guide for voters.” In your opinion, do party platforms really matter to voters or are they more focused on what the nominees have to say?

CROTTY: The Repub­lican party should pray that nobody reads its plat­form. It is an extremely con­ser­v­a­tive, fun­da­men­talist reli­gious doc­u­ment. If you really think about it, the plat­form con­tains an eco­nomic policy that man­aged to give us the Great Reces­sion as well as the most inequitable tax struc­ture and income dif­fer­en­tials since the pre-​​new Deal era. For­tu­nately, no one reads the plat­form or cares about it beyond interest groups who invest in the party and con­stituency pro­po­nents who look to see if their inter­ests have been rep­re­sented. In your idle moments, you might com­pare the 2012 Repub­lican plat­form with the plat­forms up to the Reagan years. What was mod­erate Burkean con­ser­vatism has given way to what I con­sider a hard­core, extremist, minority vision of society and gov­ern­ment. Having said all of this — and given all the prob­lems that Romney has encoun­tered, including a hur­ri­cane during the Tampa con­ven­tion — it should be remem­bered that he is tied with Obama in the polls. The real cam­paign is just beginning.

– by Jason Kornwitz

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