x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US elections: party platforms and shifting stances

Much has been made of how far the Republican Party platform has moved to the right and of the substantial differences between the platforms of the two major political parties. But platforms are not road maps laying out how each party will govern. Our columnist James Zogby reports live from North Carolina.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina // Much has been made of how far the Republican Party platform has moved to the right (it really has), and of the substantial differences that exist between the platforms of the two major political parties in the United States (they are wildly different).

But platforms are not road maps laying out how each party will govern. Rather, they reflect the relative strength of the different interest groups that make up today's Republican and Democratic parties. And they mirror the source and scope of the pressures that would come to bear if attempts were made to actually transform the positions they set forth into policy.

For example, the Tea Party, the religious right, and libertarians compete for influence in the Republican Party, hence their party's platform includes very conservative positions on some social issues, while attempting to maintain a Constitution-based respect for individual liberty. On the Democratic side, groups representing women, liberal, and civil rights groups hold sway, as does the influence of pro-Israel organisations.

Given the efforts of these sometimes competing pressure groups, platforms are rarely coherent political manifestos. They are more like shopping lists designed to keep constituent groups happy. As such, candidates sometimes distance themselves from parts of their party's platforms.

I recall, in 1996, when the Democratic Party platform was to include a section recognising Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. I was concerned that this would be destructive of the peace negotiations that were underway, sending a very wrong message to Palestinians. I was able to get the White House to issue a statement rejecting the platform, making it clear that while this might be the position of the party, it was not the position of the Clinton presidency.

George HW Bush confronted similar problems from his party in 1992 and had to face them down. Mr Romney may need to do the same thing this year on several issues where the platform is out of sync with positions he has taken.

There are often such contradictions within the parties' platforms - between the language used and the policies that are in fact being pursued.

For example, the 2012 Democratic Party platform retains the much same language on civil liberties found in the 2008 document, making the pledge that the party is "committed to ending racial, ethnic, and religious profiling and requiring federal, state, and local enforcement agencies to take steps to eliminate the practice."

Such language, however, is a far cry from the policies of the past four years, with the Obama administration apparently seeking to avoid a collision with law enforcement on counter-terrorism efforts.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US government's main criminal investigative and counterintelligence agency, still operates under the Bush Administration guidelines that opened the door for the practice of religious and ethnic profiling. And Obama administration officials have also expressed support for one of the most egregious recent examples of ethnic and religious profiling - the New York Police Department's surveillance programme against Arabs and Muslims.

The issue of detainees is another area where the language of Democratic platform differs from actual policy.

The Obama administration ran into congressional resistance in their efforts to fulfil their 2008 commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. They now appear to have abandoned the effort, even seeking to limit the legal rights of detainees and allowing passage of a defence-spending bill that provides for indefinite detention of American citizens. The 2012 platform acknowledges these difficulties and scales back on some commitments, now saying for example that the Guantanamo facility should "eventually close."

There are other areas in the Democrats' platform that are more in line with policies actually pursued, including the planks on Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring.

The portion of the Democratic platform on Al Qaeda is among the most detailed sections in the document, highlighting specific counterterrorism successes. The policies laid out in the platform largely mirror President Obama's, focusing on "precision strikes" against "identifiable" groups or individuals. Candidate Obama said he would go into Pakistan if necessary to get Al Qaeda and he has done that.

The language on the Arab Spring also echoes the administration's policies. It begins with an acknowledgement of and an expression of support for Arabs seeking "universal rights". It pledges to support this transformation by providing Arabs with the assistance they will require to build capacity to meet new needs. The platform language is supportive, but low key, and unlike the Republican document it does not call for projecting "American values" or using American power.

There are a number of areas where the Republican platform displays a disconnect between language adopted by the party and policies actually advocated by elected Republican officials and candidates. For example, the platform is laden with references to the US Constitution supporting religious freedom and condemning "those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, or religious intolerance."

There is a strongly worded section that expresses opposition to discrimination against businesses for their religious views or use of religious symbols. It also asserts "every citizen's right to apply religious values to public policy and the right of faith-based organisations to participate fully in public programs without renouncing their beliefs."

All this, of course, is the product of the religious right,and most likely refers to Christians only, since it stands in marked contrast to Republican-led efforts against the Park 51 Islamic Community Center and attacks against American Muslim public servants.

These recent sad episodes in the party's history are not even acknowledged in the Republican platform. Its anti-discrimination and religious freedom portions are also contradicted elsewhere in the document, where it states that there "must be no use of foreign law by US courts in interpreting our Constitution and laws." These are the code words used by Republican activists seeking to pass "anti-Sharia" bills in state legislatures.

The platform's strong language regarding constitutional protections also contradicts Republican responses to clear abuses of constitutional rights. Republicans in office have been some of the greatest cheerleaders and defenders of indefinite detention, racial profiling by the FBI and Transportation Security Administration and the NYPD's counterterrorism tactics.

The most remarkably inconsistent language in the Republican platform is in the section on the Arab Spring. The section entitled "The Challenges of a Changing Middle East" first praises the "democratic movements leading to the overthrow of dictators who have been menaces to global security for decades." Then, in the very same paragraph, the platform pledges support to the governments in the region that have provided substantial support for the United States' goals, without ever acknowledging that the overthrown "menacing dictators" (presumably the leaders of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) and our chief supporters were, in many cases, the same people.

The language in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are somewhat toned down from previous years and from the positions taken by candidates and elected officials in both parties.

The Republican platform, for example, expressly endorses the two-state solution, whereas many Republican candidates and officials increasingly shy away from taking even this modest position since they claim that it "dictates" terms of peace to Israel. It refers to Jerusalem as Israel's capital but doesn't make the pledge to move the US embassy - this, despite the fact that successful Republican candidates for president since Ronald Reagan routinely make this pledge only to break it once in office.

In contrast, the section on Israel-Palestine in the Democratic Party platform seems aimed at shielding Mr Obama from Mr Romney's attacks that the president "threw Israel under the bus". The focus of this section is on how much the administration has done to bolster defence cooperation with Israel.

But while past Democratic platforms have been filled with endorsements of specific solutions to aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on everything from Jerusalem to refugees, this year's version talks about the conflict only in the vaguest possible terms and makes no mention of Jerusalem.


James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute (www.aaiusa.org and Twiiter at @aaiusa)