While Democratic platform-writers moved smartly last month from left toward center, where the votes are, the Republican document due approval in Houston tomorrow night represents a sharp swing to the extreme right. Such a shift is so dumb, politically, that it suggests some GOP ultras (Pat Buchanan?) are quite willing to see President Bush defeated so they can take over the party.
First Lady Barbara Bush may have suspected as much when she broke silence on the abortion issue to say that the call for a constitutional amendment banning abortion in all circumstances has no business being in the platform. It is a stand backed by 55 percent of the delegates. But conservatives in control of the platform committee slapped down a proposal to remove the abortion plank by a vote of 84-16, and so the GOP moves into an uphill fight against Democrat Bill Clinton having saddled itself with a vote-losing position on this emotional issue.
Mr. Bush was for abortion rights early in his career, but shifted to the anti-abortion camp when he joined the Reagan ticket in 1980 to make himself acceptable to skeptical conservatives. His comment last week that he would stand by a granddaughter if, against his advice, she chose to have an abortion was seen as an attempt to have it both ways. It would contradict the party platform but it would be a gesture to pro-choice Republicans who are being stifled in Houston as surely as pro-lifers were stifled by Democrats in New York.
Yet Mr. Bush has to run on this platform, even with the uncompromising anti-abortion plank his wife (and perhaps he personally) would have been pleased to jettison. How this will play on the hustings, especially among upscale Republican women, is an issue troubling to party pros intent on winning. It is also questionable if many political points are to be gained by the platform's vociferous assaults on birth control counseling in public schools, homosexuals in the military, distribution of condoms and clean needles to curb the spread of AIDS, federal funding of the arts and public broadcasting plus other issues dear to the religious right.
That the GOP platform debate was essentially a preliminary skirmish for the Bush succession was clear in a number of other areas. The president's delegates had to fight hard to fend off amendments labeling his 1990 tax increases a "mistake" and a proposal condemning his policy of continuing to do business with the Chinese regime.
The conservative Mr. Buchanan won a signal victory in gaining acceptance of a plank calling for "the tools, technologies and structures" needed to secure the border with Mexico against illegal immigration. Coming in the same week Mr. Bush was exulting in a free-trade agreement with Mexico, this was seen as an endorsement of Mr. Buchanan's anti-immigrant position. "We got our platform four years early," rejoiced Bay Buchanan, Mr. Buchanan's sister and campaign manager.
Clearly, this platform is not a document that will be helpful to the Bush candidacy. Its shrillness, narrow appeal and overtones of intra-party rivalry portend future conflict.