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Why Republicans didn’t write a platform for their convention this year

The party’s true priority is supporting Donald Trump.

President Trump and Vice President Pence appear on stage together during the first day of the Republican National Convention.
Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The Republican Party took an unusual approach to writing its convention platform for 2020: It decided not to write one.

Rather, the GOP is reusing its platform from four years ago, which was written before Donald Trump became president. That means Republican delegates will not go through the usual process of deliberating over policies and principles to determine what the party stands for in 2020, as Democrats recently did.

A Republican National Committee (RNC) resolution on the topic says the reason the party has no new platform is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has necessitated a scaled-back convention this year. Since all the delegates couldn’t gather in person, they claim, they’re not doing a platform.

But that’s not all there is to the story. Just a few months ago, word leaked out that Trump’s team, led by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, had big plans to shake up the platform by dramatically shortening it — plans that drew the ire of some conservative activists, who were used to exerting their influence on the lengthy document.

So, back in June, the party made the decision to skip platform-drafting entirely and just reuse the 2016 document, citing the pandemic as the reason. It’s unclear if this was done deliberately to avoid messy party infighting over the platform, but it certainly had that effect.

After all, it would have been possible to draft a platform virtually; Democrats just did so. Republicans weren’t prevented from doing the same, but they chose not to bother. Instead of policy, the RNC’s brief resolution on the topic repeatedly cites one major organizing principle that the Republican Party will adhere to for the next four years: support of President Trump.

Why Trump’s team initially wanted to rethink the GOP platform this year

Back in 2016, most of the delegates to the Republican National Convention were chosen while Trump’s hostile takeover of the party was still in progress. And as Trump started to clinch the nomination, he mostly ceded the platform-drafting task to those delegates, a process that was dominated by conservative activists.

This resulted in embarrassing stories about how, for instance, the Republican platform had language signaling support for “conversion therapy” — sending a child to therapy to try to change their sexual orientation. There was also a messy controversy involving a proposed amendment in support of providing lethal aid to Ukraine. Trump advisers helped defeat the amendment, and critics argued that showed they were too supportive of Russia.

Overall, Republicans had a fairly typical platform-drafting process, one in which various delegates are named to a committee and negotiations take place in a way that’s guided but not always controlled by the presidential campaign. It’s a process that seems a bit antiquated. The end product is certainly not optimally designed to serve the interests of the presidential candidate or to speak to voters.

So this May, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that Kushner wanted to change all that.

Kushner had been supervising a six-month effort to rethink the platform, Swan reported. One of his main goals was to drastically shorten the lengthy document (“down to a single card that fits in people’s pockets”). He also wanted to ditch some language and policies designed to appeal to conservative activists that he thought could alienate ordinary voters.

Kushner was probably acting at Trump’s behest, if this later tweet from the president is any indication:

But Swan’s story heavily emphasized Kushner’s role in reshaping the platform — one that was guaranteed to be controversial among conservatives, considering that Kushner is a former Democrat and is disdained particularly by cultural conservatives as a New York liberal.

And indeed, the New York Times’s Reid Epstein and Annie Karni later reported that “grass-roots activists were livid” about Swan’s report, and that “some of those discussed organizing an effort to resist what they viewed as [Kushner’s] changes.”

How Kushner’s platform became no platform

As all this was unfolding, so was the Covid-19 pandemic. Until June, Republicans were still hoping to hold a full-blown convention and to bring 50,000 people to Charlotte, North Carolina. The state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, said this would not be acceptable due to public health concerns. But Trump badly wanted to give his convention speech to a full crowd, so he declared in June that he’d skip Charlotte and have his speech in Jacksonville, Florida.

Republicans weren’t abandoning Charlotte entirely; they still planned to hold some convention events there. But with the president’s change of venue, delegates who made the trip to Charlotte wouldn’t even get to see Trump speak.

So Republican officials announced in late June that they would scale back convention proceedings after all and that part of this effort would involve ditching platform-drafting entirely. The party would just reuse its 2016 platform rather than write a new one.

Republican officials claimed to Epstein and Karni that the final decision was “driven by logistics” and not the controversy over Kushner’s proposed changes. “Republican officials decided it did not make sense to ask about 5,000 delegates and alternates to pay to fly to Charlotte” when the main convention speeches were happening elsewhere, they wrote.

Still, this isn’t entirely convincing. Democrats managed to craft their platform through remote gatherings and calls, and Republicans surely could have done the same if they so desired. The party made a deliberate choice to pull the plug on the platform process entirely rather than try to make it work virtually.

How the RNC is explaining the decision

Some Trump critics have found it amusing that the GOP’s reused 2016 platform has language that now can be read as criticizing President Trump himself.

The platform complains, for instance, that “for the past 8 years America has been led in the wrong direction” and that “our standing in world affairs has declined significantly.” It also declares that “the President has been regulating to death a free market economy that he does not like and does not understand” and that “he defies the laws of the United States.” (All of those were meant to refer to President Barack Obama.)

Of course, read more generously, much of the old platform does remain relevant, like support for the Second Amendment, less regulation, and cracking down on unauthorized immigration. Republicans still believe all these things and haven’t changed their views in the past four years.

Even so, perhaps in response to negative coverage about the lack of a new platform, the Trump campaign released a “second-term agenda” that currently is composed of a few dozen bullet points, like “Create 1 Million New Small Businesses,” without further elaboration or complete sentences. (This may be where the Kushner effort to revamp the platform ended up.)

Meanwhile, the RNC released a resolution about the platform decision which itself makes for somewhat interesting reading.

For one, the RNC says it’s not writing a new platform “in appreciation of the fact that it did not want a small contingent of delegates formulating a new platform without the breadth of perspectives within the ever-growing Republican movement.”

That is: They’re saying they’d never want to exclude conservative activists from the platform-drafting process, as the stories about Kushner might suggest was happening. Rather, they claim, they want to be extremely inclusive, but Covid-19 sadly makes that impossible. (Except by doing it virtually, which they’re not even trying.)

The rest of the resolution contains two main themes: proclamations of support for Trump and criticism of the media. Again, this is just from a brief one-page document:

WHEREAS, The RNC, had the Platform Committee been able to convene in 2020, would have undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration ...

WHEREAS, The media has outrageously misrepresented the implications of the RNC not adopting a new platform in 2020 ...

WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration ...

RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda ...

RESOLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention calls on the media to engage in accurate and unbiased reporting, especially as it relates to the strong support of the RNC for President Trump and his Administration ...

In effect, they’re formalizing what’s been apparent for years now, that the main political imperative of the Republican Party is to support Donald Trump, with some media-bashing thrown in.

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