The platforms of 2000 speak volumes--actually two volumes--about the Republican and Democratic parties and their new leaders, George W. Bush and Al Gore. They are wordy but accurate guides to what the parties accomplished in the past, stand for in the present, and are likely to do in the future.
Parties began to write platforms in 1840--a mere nine sentences then. As the nation and its problems have grown, so have the political manifestos, each now reaching a hundred printed pages. Probably fewer people read the entire text than read through every baseball box score. But both platforms and box scores give us vital information about the contending teams' past performances and future promises.
The platforms of 2000, like their predecessors, include a lot of empty verbiage and patriotic cliches. More useful in the election are the extensive presentations of the parties' records, because many voters decide their votes on an evaluation of the success and failures of Democrats and Republicans.
Two contending pictures
The platforms convey two very different pictures of the state of the nation today. Like contending lawyers, the parties present their interpretations of the evidence to the jury, the American people. Although they don't read the text, just as juries don't read all the technical exhibits, voters get the platform message from the candidates, the media, their friends, and interest groups.
As the party holding the White House, the Democrats parade their proclaimed accomplishments. The platform gives the Clinton-Gore administration credit for the booming national economy, decreased crime, higher reading scores, withdrawal of Serbian aggressors from Kosovo, and virtually every national success of the past eight years. Failures are made the responsibility of the opposition, or the remaining dismal heritage of Othe Bush-Quayle administration.O
The Republicans see the same evidence very differently. Acknowledging "the longest economic boom in the twentieth century," the GOP gives credit to Presidents Reagan and Bush, and to the Republican Congress that limited government spending. The Clinton administration is blamed for most national ills. It is criticized for its health care program, the American tax burden, an inadequate military defense, and weak foreign policy.
One major event of the past four years is hardly acknowledged: the impeachment of President Clinton. Without being specific, Republicans vaguely mention "misconduct in high office" and "applaud those Members who did their duty to conscience and the Constitution." Democrats do not even hint at the subject. Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, and the rest of the impeachment cast have been thrown off the stage of American politics.
Promises for the future
The promises that the parties make for the future are the largest part of the platforms. Contrary to conventional wisdom, officeholders take their pledges seriously. They will form the basis of the next presidential program and the congressional agenda. Scholarly analysis shows that politicians deliver, at least in part, on a majority of these vows.
In their platforms, as in their speeches, Bush and Gore seek to appeal to the political center. The Democrats present themselves as models of fiscal restraint and pledge to pay off the publicly held national debt in 12 years. The Republicans offer a self-portrait of compassionate conservatism, including federal grants for public education and increased spending on medical research.
Though Gore and Bush want to win centrist voters, their platforms illustrate basic party contrasts. This yearOs programs show a familiar and continuing difference between the two parties. When Democrats see a social problem, their first instinct is to find a solution through government action. When Republicans see the same problem, their first instinct is to look for some …