Plank by plank, parties begin building 1980 platforms
To Theodore Roosevel, they were "weasel words." To Harry Truman, they were "contracts with the people . . . that had to be carried out."
To most American voters, they are probably the most fussed-over and least-read political documents of any presidential election.
They are: the national party platforms.
Whether or not the politicians or the voters ever pay much attention to them once they are written, the platforms of both major parties for the 1980 election have now begun to take shape.
And while nothing as remotely controversial as, say, the civil rights plank rammed into the Democratic platform in 1948 by Hubert H. Humphrey looms in prospect, the process will extend across several months and much of the nation's geography.
The Republicans have been platform-drafting since mid-January in nine cities. The Democrats began March 18 in Washington, before moving on to 18 more days of sessions over the next three months in four other cities.
The Democrats' kickoff brought many of the 158 of the party faithful -- county chairmen, city officials, farmers, housewives, all elected at the party's 1978 mid-term conference in Memphis -- to the brass-chandeliered elegance of the Mayflower Hotel, a short stroll from the White House, which their party now controls.
There they listened to the recommendations of 14 advisory committees on topics ranging, in chronological order, from international economic policy to older citizens.
Amid presentations on the finer points of the income-tax code and farm credit , participants usually outnumbered spectators. From one of the rows of empty chairs at the rear of the room, party chairman John White looked on benignly, briefcase in lap.
Will the final product of these platformmakers, and that of their Republican counterparts, really guide the next presidential administration?
Detroit Mayor-Coleman Young, chairman of the Democratic platform committee, thinks so.
"I say that the Democratic Party has lived up to the terms of its 1976 agreement," he told the assembled members. "And 1980 will be no different."
Others, however, wax more skeptical.
The Republican National Committee is keeping a running tally on the Carter administration's performance on its campaign promises -- those contained in the 1976 platform, as well as in speeches and other pronouncements.
It claims that of the administration's 595 separate promises, only 130 have been kept, 227 broken, and the remaining 238 are unkept, unkeepable, or unverifiable.
The charge of abandoning the party platform comes not only from the opposing party. Several Democratic platform-drafters criticized their own administration for straying from the 1976 platform planks on economic policy, energy, defense spending, and the Middle East.
The President's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, contends that his own positions on campaign issues hew closer to the party's platform than do the President's.
He calls Mr. Carter and his associates "those whose promises have failed."