WASHINGTON -- Party platforms have seldom meant much to average voters as they've trooped to the polls in November. The long-winded documents are written by party insiders and then customarily forgotten, not only by voters who are barely aware of their contents but even by the party nominees who supposedly run on them.
This year apparently will be no exception, based on the assurances of the Republican platform committee chairman, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and his Democratic counterpart, Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina, after showcase hearings designed to demonstrate that the party cares about what interested, activist folks think should be in the platforms.
Mr. Thompson cleared the Republican decks for smooth sailing at the GOP convention starting in Philadelphia at the end of this month by reporting after his hearings that there will be no convention attempt to delete or water down the one platform plank that could have caused fireworks -- support for a flat ban on abortion.
Taking a clear signal from prospective presidential nominee George W. Bush, who opposes abortion except in the cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the pregnant woman, the platform writers agreed to keep hands off the existing language, even though it does not provide the exceptions Mr. Bush favors. The agreement demonstrates a preference for regaining the White House over having a fight on the one issue that has party dissenters from the platform status quo.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Hunt during his committee's drafting session in St. Louis the other day, said Vice President Al Gore, his party's prospective nominee, should have no trouble running on the platform because "much of this is what he has already said and what he has already proposed."
The one issue of greatest controversy within the Democratic Party this year -- free trade, championed by Mr. Gore in endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement and permanent trade relations with China over the opposition of organized labor -- apparently will for the most part be finessed at the party's convention in Los Angeles next month.
Just as Republican platform writers are looking to their candidate's lead in the polls and don't want to rock the boat with an internal issues squabble, the Democrats recognize that their candidate needs a relatively united front if he is to shake the problems that have besieged his campaign and have an impressive convention.
One reason the platform picture is shaping up as a placid front going into both major-party conventions is that the country is itself in a placid mood. In times of crisis, divisive issues tend to demand more attention within the parties.
For example, in 1948, as racial discrimination began bubbling up as a national concern, the Democratic convention in Philadelphia exploded in a full-blown row for stronger platform language on civil rights, led by a young mayor from Minneapolis named Hubert Humphrey. Most platform members hoped to get by with the mild language of the 1944 plank in the hope of mollifying the South. But after a rancorous debate on the floor, the Humphrey forces won by 69 votes out of 1,234 cast, causing a walkout of delegates from Mississippi and Alabama and ultimately formation of a so-called Dixiecrat ticket headed by then Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Again in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, a vitriolic fight over a liberal-supported peace plank on the Democratic convention floor spilled into the streets of Chicago, severely tainting Humphrey's nomination. War protesters sought through the peace plank to give the then-vice president under President Lyndon Johnson a vehicle by which to free him from LBJ's resolute prosecution of the war. But Johnson dug in his heels and the peace plank was defeated.
As recently as 1996, abortion-rights Republicans sought to water down their party's abortion plank, but the party by holding hearings in advance of the convention put the fire out before the opening gavel. This year, the same tactic by both parties of putting the platform on ice early is clearly designed to avoid any such rows, and assure that the actual conventions again become, as they have been in the recent past, inoffensive love fests.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.