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Republican convention 2016: the RNC platform, explained

The Republican Party's platform shows Trump is changing its official position on trade and immigration — two issues key to his candidacy.
The Republican Party's platform shows Trump is changing its official position on trade and immigration — two issues key to his candidacy.

As the GOP convention kicks off Monday in Cleveland, the party has released its official platform — a document that represents a blueprint for how Republicans want to govern going forward.

This year’s platform bears the distinctive mark of Donald Trump: It calls for stricter controls on immigration and an "America first" trade policy. But the platform isn’t just about Trump. Several of his most high-profile positions (like the Muslim ban) got left out, and the platform also includes a bevy of new conservative positions pushed by rank-and-file activists, not the nominee.

On energy, this year’s platform calls coal a "clean" energy source. It explicitly condones conversion therapy for LBGTQ kids. The document also calls internet pornography a "public health crisis." It suggests that the party would be moving rightward with or without Trump.

Trump has left his mark on the platform on trade and immigration

The central tension in crafting the platform was between Donald Trump and the rest of his party — particularly on issues, like trade and immigration, on which the two don’t always agree.

Those divisions came to the surface last week in arguments between GOP committee members about what should be included in the platform. As the Atlantic’s Molly Ball wrote, the platform battles offered a window into the war for the party’s soul:

The result was a portrait of a party being pulled in competing and perhaps irreconcilable directions. It raises but does not answer the big question for the GOP, one that will linger past November: Will Trump, win or lose, change the party forever? Has he, for better or worse, already remade the Republican Party in his image?

The results seemed to be mixed. Some of Trump’s notorious policies (like the ban on Muslims entering the country) were left out of the platform. The platform also doesn’t reflect the candidate's rejection of the invasion of Iraq or his more moderate stance on same-sex marriage.

But the platform does reflect his vision on trade and immigration — and that’s a big change. Back in 2013, the RNC put out a post-election "autopsy" report urging the GOP to moderate on immigration after Mitt Romney’s defeat. This year’s platform basically rejects that autopsy report entirely. The platform includes:

  • A wall on the Mexican border: The platform calls on a wall covering "the entirety of the southern border [that] must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic." Of course, the "wall with Mexico" may be Trump’s best-known policy. (The 2012 platform mentions the Berlin Wall twice and Wall Street once, but doesn’t suggest building one on the Mexico border.)
  • Calling immigrants "illegal aliens": This isn’t a policy shift, but the new platform changed language from "illegal immigrants" to "illegal aliens."

The platform also clearly bears Trump’s mark on trade, including:

  • "America first" trade policy: CNN reports that the platform adopts sharp Trump-like language on promoting an "America first" trade policy. "Republicans understand that you can succeed in a negotiation only if you are willing to walk away from it," the platform says.
  • Aggressive stance toward China on trade: Multiple news outlets have also said Trump’s calls to take a tougher stance against China over trade made their way into the platform. "We cannot allow China to continue its currency manipulation, exclusion of U.S. products from government purchases, and subsidization of Chinese companies to thwart American imports," the new platform states.

The platform also moves right on a bunch of non-Trump issues

But while the party moved in Trump’s direction on trade and immigration, the platform also moves right on issues that Trump didn’t seem to have a particular stance on one way or another. As Matt Yglesias noted, the platform includes "a lot of more or less wacky notions that highlight the continued influence of talk radio" over more traditional Republican activists.

Those include:

  • Support for Israel: The platform calls for an "undivided" Jerusalem, "removing a reference to Palestine in support of a two-state solution," according to CNN. (The 2012 platform says "we envision two democratic states — Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine — living in peace and security.")
  • Teaching the Bible in public schools: In 2012, the platform’s only reference to the Bible was to opposing any bans on it in military forces. Now the GOP platform encourages state legislatures to offer Bible studies as an elective course in high schools.
  • EMPs as a real threat: The party also adds a fear that "an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern," and urges the federal government to take action over the threat of electromagnetic pulse weapons. (The party is wrong about this, as Vox has previously reported.)
  • Coal is a "clean" energy source: The GOP platform calls coal "an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource." In 2012, the GOP merely called coal "abundant" and "low-cost."
  • "Auditing" the Federal Reserve: The platform also adopts Ron Paul’s once crankish call to "audit" the Federal Reserve. According to Yglesias, the legislation that goes under this name isn’t really about auditing, which already happens.
  • Lawmakers must consider religion: The platform also calls lawmakers to use religion as a guide when drafting legislation, and says "that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights."
  • Calling abortion "aborted children": The platform committee also edited a reference to "aborted fetuses" to instead refer to "aborted children," according to Ball. (The 2012 platform does not mention "aborted children.")

Some observers thought Trump might moderate the party on some of these social issues. But the results from the platform debate suggest that Trump couldn't take on its more far-right factions — or didn't care enough to try.

The platform isn’t binding — but it’s a great window into where the party’s going

It’s true that the GOP platform is not binding on the next president. (Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, once famously declared that he’d never even read the Republican platform.)

Still, political scientists argue there’s plenty of good evidence that the platform really may be the best way to understand what policies a party would pass in office.

Lee Payne, an associate professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, went through all of the platforms by both the Republican and Democratic parties from 1980 until 2004. He found that from 1980 until 2004, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress voted in accordance with their platforms 82 percent of the time.

"Members of the House and Senate vote in line with the party platform at a very high rate," Payne says. "So, yes, I would say it matters."

The platforms are also useful as windows into the jostling for power between the smaller factions that together form the parties, according to Jennifer Victor, a political scientist at George Mason University. "The coalitions come up with this written statement, and that is useful to figuring out what all these folks can agree on together," she says. "We’re really looking at the party written on paper."

Harvard professor Ryan Enos agrees that the platform tends to reflect the stated objectives of the party — and is therefore one of the best ways to gauge the party's overall direction. "We know that voters in the public get pulled in the direction of the people with the microphone," he says. "If someone gets up there and tries pulling some issue to the left, the party can move in that direction."

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