Republican Platform an Exercise in not Offending

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for June 15th and thereafter
730 words

INDIANAPOLIS — Time for a pop quiz on Indiana politics. Guess which political party includes the following statements in its 2004 platform.

1. "To combat public corruption and end the cycle of scandal, fraud and theft in state government, we support the creation of an Office of Inspector General" as well as stronger whistleblower protection laws to reward state employees for reporting wrongdoing.

2. "No task is more important for Indiana’s governor and general assembly than a focus on job creation."

3. "Along with providing a job friendly environment, Indiana should invest in its workers. We can do so by providing opportunities for upgrading skills, better coordination between higher education and workforce training programs and encouraging increased support from higher education."

If you’re not sure whether that language comes from the Republican or Democratic platform, read further.

This party wants to reduce property taxes and promote Indiana coal. It supports

privatization in Indiana prisons, prefers childbirth to abortion, defines marriage as the union of a woman and a man and wants to do whatever it can to promote voluntary charitable activity. It supports President Bush’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Predictable. Boring. Non-controversial. Just like the Republicans planned it.

Gordon K. Durnil, former GOP state chairman who served as executive secretary of the 2004 Indiana Republican Platform Committee, says the foremost goal of platform writers is to avoid controversy. The last thing the party wants to do going into a huge election is attract headlines that night take attention off the candidates and their messages.

On that score, both Republicans and Democrats have been successful. A scan of Indiana newspaper stories during the June 7-8 Republican convention and June 12 Democratic state convention show very few mentions of the party platforms and no substantive stories about their contents.

Times have changed. Political junkies may remember when newspapers put platform stories on Page One. As recently as the 1980s, state law required the parties to develop policy platforms.

Durnil, who’s been involved with just about every Indiana Republican platform since 1966, pushed the legislature to eliminate the requirement. His reasoning: Government has no business micromanaging parties.

Nonetheless, platforms serve a purpose, he believes. "The value of it is: You do bring the party workers together and let them have a voice in what the collective view of the party is," says Durnil, "It is a significant statement of principle. A good basic democratic process."

Durnil says government teachers and students still turn first to party platforms when they research political parties and their philosophies.

While they won’t find the more extreme convictions of some party members listed, they will get a good sense of identity. And they will find differences in emphasis between Republicans and Democrats.

One obvious example. This year’s Republican platform attacks the record of Gov. Joe Kernan and points to a series of scandals in state agencies — the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Family and Social Services Administration and Public Employees Retirement Fund — as evidence change is needed.

Otherwise, there are few specifics. The platform says "every child should be entitled to a highly qualified teacher," but gives no suggestions on how to guarantee one. It describes the property tax system as "a complete unfettered mess," and urges tax cuts, but doesn’t say how to replace revenues that would be lost through cuts.

The parties defer to the gubernatorial candidates to set the agenda. That’s one of the biggest shifts in politics over the past four decades. In times past, the parties approved the platforms and asked candidates to run on them. Now, the parties give the candidates veto power over language they might find problematic.

What you can find in a platform is consensus. The Republican platform committee included 100 people from all nine congressional districts and held hearings in Evansville, Fort Wayne, South Bend and Indianapolis. A rules committee approved the platform and the full convention adopted it.

On one of the most sensitive issues mentioned — abortion — the platform itself acknowledges "diversity of opinion among members of our party."

So if you’re looking for controversy, you won’t find it in the 2004 Republican platform, but you will get a sense of what Republicans agree on. Are the Democrats any riskier in their 2004 platform? We’ll look at their statement of principles next week.

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