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US Democrats Prepare to Debate Party Platform Issues - 2004-07-21


When the Democratic Party's national convention opens next Monday in Boston, one of the first actions delegates will take is adopting the party platform. The lengthy document contains the party's official position on a wide variety of issues ranging from the war on terrorism to trade. Political analysts say while the issues remain important to voters, the platform itself has become a relic of the past.

For many years the platforms adopted at the conventions of U.S. political parties played a critical role in defining those parties for American voters.

The Democratic Party approved its first platform in 1840 and that document ran about 1000 words. Some platforms since then have run as high as 40,000 words as party activists have wanted to take stands on many issues.

In the past there were major battles over the platforms, as factions within the parties fought over policy positions on controversial issues.

But Presidential Historian Alan Lichtman says all that changed about 30 years ago.

"These days platforms have become utterly meaningless," he explains. "Like the conventions themselves, platforms tend to be scripted for the center of the electorate rather than represent a strong ideological bent. Today, virtually nobody pays any attention to the platform. Most American voters do not have a clue what is in the party platforms and that is by design, not by accident. Candidates want to run their own campaigns. They do not want to be bound by a platform."

In the past, there have been major platform fights over issues such as abortion and trade policy. But this year, analysts say, both parties want to avoid any public show of internal discord.

Stuart Rothenberg writes about politics for Roll Call magazine and is a VOA analyst for this year's election.

"The Democrats are trying to avoid splits, to rally behind their team, to take on George Bush. Republicans feel the same way that the only way for them to give George Bush another term is to stay united," he adds. "They are going to avoid, apparently going to avoid, divisive debates over platform fights."

Analysts predict the major issues in the general election that follows the conventions will include the economy, the post-war violence and rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and the global war on terrorism.

On the campaign trail presumptive Democratic Party nominee John Kerry has been hammering President Bush for what he says is a foreign policy that has alienated other countries.

"This president has run the most arrogant, inept, reckless, ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country," Mr. Kerry said.

At rallies and town hall meetings throughout the United States President Bush has focused attention on a brighter economy.

Mr. Bush points out his administration has faced the September 11, 2001 attacks, a recession, war and corporate scandals and has still managed an improving economy that is boosting consumer confidence and has produced at least 1.5 million new jobs since last August.

"The economy of the United States has been through a lot. If you really think about it is pretty remarkable to be able to stand up and say to you that our economy is strong and getting stronger and that we are witnessing steady, consistent growth," he said.

While the economy and the war in Iraq are expected to be major issues in the campaign, many Americans are still concerned about the threat of new terrorist attacks between now and the November elections.

Presidential historian Alan Lichtman says the 9/11 terrorist attacks and fears that another catastrophic assault could occur, will have a major impact on the election.

"A whole series of issues coming out of 9/11 will be central to this election," he notes. "The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, homeland security, the Patriot Act and the questions that surround George W. Bush about weapons of mass destruction, preparedness for 9/11 and our conduct of the war. How the electorate determines their view on these issues coming out of 9/11 could decide the election."

Analysts say only party activists and voters in a handful of key primary states have focused on the race for the White House so far.

They say that will begin to change when the Democrats kick off their gathering in Boston and the Republicans hold their convention next month in New York City.

While the party platforms will be largely forgotten, the candidates and the issues will take center stage as the November election approaches.

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