Washington — I propose that the Democrats and Republicans and their presidential nominees free themselves from the pitfalls and deceptions of party platforms. It would make for a much better campaign -- more meaningful and more honest.
I urge them to throw over the baggage of election-oriented promises.
Few presidents are noted for honoring their campaign promises. A president rarely has the power by himself to do so. No president can know whether his Congress will permit him to implement his commitments.
Party platforms have become a liability to good government. They used to mislead voters into believing they would be carried out. Now they do worse by generating cynicism and distrust of government by voters who are too wise to be fooled.
The Democratic leader of the Senate, Robert C. Byrd of Virginia, blurted out the truth at a recent press conference when he said: "I've never paid much attention to platforms nor have I felt bound by them."
Another Democratic leader, who is an old hand at writing party platforms, describes a national platform as "something to win on."
Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers Union, avows that the 1976 Democratic platform "is as good as new; it just hasn't been used yet."
I can think of one condition which would make party platforms compellingly meaningful. It would scare the politicians stiff. What do you think their reaction would be if legislation could be passed to permit class-action suits against the political parties and the president for joint failure to fulfill their campaign commitments?
That would be something. That would be downright fun. There would be no need for tax reduction. The pockets of the suing voters would be filled or most campaign promises would come to an abrupt end.
It would be a bad law. It would be reckless, because many campaign promises ought not to be enacted because they were unwise in the first place and often events have so changed that they are no longer pertinent.
President Carter had a particularly hard time following up on his 1976 platform. One of its most attractive promises was to return a $50 tax rebate to every taxpayer. That was abandoned early in the first year. Another campaign commitment was that he would balance the federal budget by 1981. That was repeated as the climax of his acceptance speech and no one can say he hasn't tried to come near it. But it is not likely to be realized in light of the tempting appropriations which are coming up before Congress adjourns this fall.
The Republican National Committee would hardly be accepted as an objective source, but there must be some substance in the findings of its researchers who report that of the 667 "promises" Mr. Carter made in the campaign, 227 were broken and 235 were either "unkept" or "unkeepable".
I am not suggesting that Nixon or Ford did better. Or even Franklin Roosevelt. Some may recall that in his 1932 campaign F. D. R. "promised" to balance the budget by cutting federal spending. Breaking campaign promises is a bipartisan vice. Wouldn't it be a good thing to break the habit cold?
Since most members of Congress, as Senator Byrd has frankly said of himself, pay little attention to platforms and do not feel bound by them, they ought to be abandoned altogether. It would introduce a breath of fresh air and realism into the campaign about to begin. It could be a first step toward the "new politics" of the decade of the eighties.
It is my conviction that most voters would welcome a presidential campaign which would focus on the quality of thinking of the nominees, on their grasp of the nation's problems, and on a clear statement of the direction in which each intends to move, if elected.
I am sure the voters would like it and I suspect the candidates would, too.