Party platforms have both an immediate and a long term role.
For the immediate future they should help win the election and communicate the core values and proposals that rally activists and voters to the party and its candidate for president.
There are a number of obvious planks that have been in our recent platforms including Right to Life, defending the Second Amendment, balancing the budget, etc.
However, for the long run a party platform can also play a very useful role in educating the country and setting the stage for a big discussion about big ideas.
As we prepare for the 2012 platform it is worth looking back to the first Republican platform in 1856 for an idea of how influential these documents can be. In the 1856 platform, the party made a series of commitments that quite literally changed American history. Most obvious was the platform’s commitment to opposing the extension of slavery in the territories—a stand that helped lead to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
The 1856 platform previewed Lincoln’s moral arguments for the abolition of slavery, harkening “our Republican fathers, [who held] it to be a self-evident truth, that all men are endowed with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that the primary object and ulterior design of our Federal Government were to secure these rights to all persons under its exclusive jurisdiction.”
The platform made another commitment that was soon to become a major policy initiative: the development of a transcontinental railroad.
This commitment was a defining characteristic of the emerging Republican Party. In 1859 candidate Abraham Lincoln stood on the banks of the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa and pledged his support for a transcontinental railroad.
This commitment to railroads as a key part of a better future was not something new for Lincoln. As early as his very first campaign for state legislator in 1832, at the age of 23 (he lost), Lincoln had a railroad construction plank in his campaign literature. The amazing thing was that Lincoln had never seen a train. The railroad engine was only invented in Great Britain in 1829 (Stephenson’s “the Rocket”) and the first engine arrived in the United States in 1829. Yet Lincoln read about it in a newspaper and intuitively understood how important railroads would be to cross the vast prairies of the American West.
Lincoln, the first Republican president, was fascinated by technology. He made a good living as a railroad attorney, winning a key case that enabled railroads to become the dominant method of transportation. He is the only president to hold a patent for a technological development. And as president he displayed great interest in new technologies for winning the Civil War.
The 2012 Republican Platform Committee should consider deeply this sense of historic technologies, long-term developments and writing to set the framework for the future as well as to win the immediate election.
There are three particular areas in which Republicans need to take a long view and write an historic section of the platform: 1. Radical Islamists, 2. Religious Liberty, and, 3. Innovation as the central engine of both economic growth and government reform.
Let me expand on each of these and explain why we need them as a key part of the dialogue about America’s future.