Parsing The 2012 Party Platforms

One overlooked part of the convention frenzy was the party platforms. They seemed to cause more embarrassment than excitement at the DNC, where party leaders fumbled at reinserting clauses about Jerusalem and God into their platform. And at the RNC, Rep. John Boehner admitted he'd never even read his party's platform. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz to talk about the platforms and what — if anything — they mean in 2012.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. The party platforms were a source of some minor contention at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. The GOP platform on abortion, for example, doesn't explicitly mention exceptions for rape or the life of the mother. The Democrats' platform was amended at the last minute to insert the word God. And yet many party leaders on both sides often dismiss the relevance of the party platforms. Here's what House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said when asked about his party's platform.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I've never read one, and I'll guarantee you I'm not sure if anybody's ever read one other than maybe the chairman of the Platform Committee.

RAZ: So if no one reads them, why have them at all? Well, for that, we turn to our senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, who is just back from two weeks at conventions. Ron, welcome back.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Guy.

RAZ: These documents, they've been around for a long time. A lot of effort goes into writing them, but it's become almost an article of faith that they don't get read and nobody really cares about them.

ELVING: It's been fashionable among Republicans - at least back to Bob Dole - to admit that you're not really all that interested in reading the platform. But there are people who read them. And, you know, in a way, they're like the contracts that we all sign, that we know we should read them before we sign them, but we don't, really, until something bad happens.

RAZ: Let's talk about the substance here. What are the crucial differences between the GOP and the Democratic platforms?

ELVING: Big differences on fiscal policy. The Democrats want more tax money from wealthy people in profitable corporations. The Republicans are looking at cutting tax rates at all levels and for corporations as well. The Democrats want to apply spending restraints to both domestic programs and military spending, and the Republicans want to exempt the military from cuts. But the even starker differences are on social policy. The Democrats support abortion rights. The Republicans want a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. The Democrats support gay marriage, and the Republicans want a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman.

RAZ: Ron, as we saw, particularly at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, the party platform created quite a few problems for party leaders. This is the chairman of the convention, Antonio Villaraigosa, calling for a voice vote on amendments made to the platform. Take a listen.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: All those delegates in favor, say aye.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Aye.

VILLARAIGOSA: All those delegates opposed, say no.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: No.

VILLARAIGOSA: In the opinion of the - let me do that again.

RAZ: OK. Wasn't sure whether there were more ayes or nos. Talk about the story here.

ELVING: They did do it again, and they did it again twice. The elimination of two things that were in the 2008 platform was the heart of this controversy. One was a reference to helping people reach their God-given potential. This year's platform took out the God-given part. The other had to do with calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

RAZ: And watching that, Ron, it got me thinking how sort of difficult that was for party leaders to deal with. I mean, President Obama had to step in and ask them to put those parts back in. So why do parties have platforms at all? I mean, what ultimately is a reason behind it?

ELVING: It's a vestige. It's something that's left over from the days when the parties got together to actually decide who their candidates were going to be and what they stood for and had huge running arguments that went on for days. Now that the conventions are just really made-for-TV ads for the candidates, they don't, generally speaking, want to spend time on anything controversial.

And the platforms are written essentially to please the activists. They're like a consolation prize for the people who are disappointed that the candidates are too moderate, in both parties. And as a consequence, they're highly likely to provide ammunition for opponents and critics.

RAZ: That's Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Guy.

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