Politics & Policy

To the Right of McCain

Platform politics.

St. Paul – The Republican party has canceled most of Monday’s program due to Hurricane Gustav, but party delegates still plan to meet for a few hours to hold some pro forma votes. One of these will concern the adoption of a new party platform. The Republican Platform Committee hammered out the details during a series of meetings in Minneapolis last week. Conservatives should be pleased with the results.

The new platform is distinctly different from the two adopted during the candidacies of George W. Bush, which were constructed to essentially mirror his positions. The 2000 and 2004 platforms made exceptions for Bush in areas where he strayed from traditionally conservative principles. By contrast, the 2008 platform accommodates McCain’s maverick positions on issues like immigration and climate change without accepting his views as the official positions of the Republican party.

For instance, on immigration, the 2008 platform adopts the line that McCain has been using on the stump, namely that Americans rejected the “comprehensive” approach to immigration because they did not trust the government to secure the border. McCain now says that border security must come first, and the 2008 document echoes this view. It states that “border security is essential to national security,” and it calls for a crackdown on cities that do not enforce immigration laws. This is a significant shift from the 2004 platform, which brushed aside conservative concerns about immigration and called for the creation of temporary worker program and a path to citizenship.

Climate change is another issue on which McCain and the base don’t see eye to eye. The first draft of the 2008 platform leaned more towards McCain’s view. It attributed warming to human activity and called on the government to take “measured and reasonable steps today” to address the problem. By the final draft, however, the platform committee had removed any references to “global warming” — relying instead on the term “climate change” — and had added the stipulation that steps could be only if taken they didn’t hinder economic growth. While this approach doesn’t embarrass McCain by slamming the door on the cap-and-trade approach he favors, it forces him to defend such a program on the grounds that it would not create a drag on the economy.

The committee found a similar approach to drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). It beat back an amendment that explicitly called for opening ANWR to oil and gas drilling, which McCain opposes. Instead, the delegates called for “accelerated exploration, drilling and development in… oilfields off the nation’s coasts to onshore fields such as those in… Alaska.” This language reinforces McCain’s support for offshore drilling and implies that the Republican Party supports drilling in ANWR, without contradicting McCain’s position on the issue.

On some issues, the party was less accommodating. The new platform renews the call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, even though McCain does not favor such an amendment. It also calls for a complete ban on all embryonic stem-cell research. McCain favors the Bush policy on stem-cell research, which allows federal funding for research that utilizes a few existing stem-cell lines. Unsurprisingly, Bush’s policy found expression in the 2004 platform.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the 2004 and 2008 platform documents is the removal of any references to the candidate running for office. In the 2004 document Bush was mentioned over 250 times, with the committee finding something about him to “praise,” “commend,” “hail,” or “applaud” over 70 times. By comparison, neither McCain nor Bush is mentioned at all in the 2008 document, except in passing in the preamble. Some conservative activists who attended the drafting of both platforms attributed this shocking difference to Karl Rove’s influential role in shaping the 2004 platform into an advertisement for the Bush campaign.

Conservatives should be grateful that the McCain campaign took a different approach to this year’s platform. The committee finalized the document on Wednesday night, well before the McCain campaign picked conservative Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. But both the principled platform and the Palin pick illustrate that McCain knows and respects his limits with the base. In the last week, McCain has twice given conservatives something to cheer for.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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