Why Party Platforms Matter

Tevi Troy

Spring 2024

A friend once told me that he turned 18 during a presidential election year and didn't know which party to support. His uncle had a novel solution: He took the Democratic and Republican platforms, tore the covers off each, and then asked his nephew to read them both and decide which one made more sense. My friend did so, and he found the Republican platform more appealing. He would eventually become a lifelong Republican and a senior official in the George W. Bush administration.

Every four years, the parties go through the exercise of attempting to distill their beliefs into a single document. Pundits and journalists tend to dismiss this effort, while party professionals lament the unruly nature of the process. Yet the platforms serve an important purpose: In an age of sound bites and selective reporting, they give people a clear view of where the parties stand on specific issues and how they prioritize our nation's challenges. And, as in the case of my friend, they can serve as a gateway to party membership and further civic involvement.

Party platforms generally run 50 to 75 pages. They typically start with a party vision, an overview of the state of the nation, and an outline of the chief problems that must be addressed. At their best, platforms connect these different elements to show how the party hopes to tackle these problems. By producing this document, the party both informs the public about its intent and gives incoming officials a policy road map should their party win.

Unfortunately in recent years, we have seen the parties increasingly push the platform-drafting process aside. The Republican Party in 2020 barely had a platform — and that was by design. Its decision was a function of the degradation of the party apparatus and its role as an organizing institution of American political life. It was also a function of our failure to grasp the historical role of the party platform and its potential to help build a broader coalition. A recovery of that understanding is essential to reviving our ailing political parties.


The party platforms as we know them today began in 1840 with Martin Van Buren, that year's Democratic Party standard-bearer. His party's platform consisted of nine positions laid out in 536 words. With two notable exceptions, the words of that platform would likely delight any modern-day conservative, focusing as it did on the limits the Constitution places on the federal government, the need for a balanced budget, opposition to the assumption of state debt, and a stark warning against the federal government favoring one type of business over another. But one of the two exceptions is quite serious: The 1840 Democratic platform asserted that Congress had no power over "the domestic institutions of the several states" — by which it meant slavery — and warned that abolitionist efforts would have "alarming and dangerous consequences." The second exception — opposition to a national bank — is not morally objectionable but now largely irrelevant.

Notably, this first platform emerged during the first election to take place after Andrew Jackson left office. Jackson (much like Donald Trump) had a tendency to lead by force of personality. His departure from the political scene helped compel his party to spell out which policies it stood for rather than which personality united its various factions.

The Republicans issued their first platform in 1856 — the first year they presented a candidate for president. That platform denounced slavery as a "relic of barbarism," criticized slavery supporters' actions, and opposed extending slavery to the new territories. It did not call for the abolition of slavery, as that would have been a bridge too far for even some Republican voters at the time. The party's 1860 platform, too, stopped short of explicitly calling for an end to slavery, but it called for abolition implicitly by highlighting the famous words from the Declaration of Independence: "That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

By the end of the Civil War, members of each party were carefully reading the opposing party's platform. In 1864 — a scant but bloody seven months before the eventual Union victory — anti-war Democrats put forth a platform that declared the Civil War a failure and called for an end to hostilities. Theodore Tilton, editor of the abolitionist paper The Independent, wrote of the platform that it was "the most villainous political manifesto known to American history." Abraham Lincoln was aware of it as well: When he died in April 1865, his pocket contained condensed versions of the Democratic and Republican platforms of that year. (To put this into perspective, 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole professed not to have read that year's Republican platform.)

Over time, platforms became particularly relevant when issues of great controversy arose. In 1896, the political debate revolved around which currency standard the nation should use. Business interests wanted the dollar backed by gold, while populists like William Jennings Bryan wanted "free silver," or the addition of silver as the basis for America's currency. Financier J. P. Morgan was a backer of gold, and he sensed in the contrast between the two positions a political opportunity.

Morgan lobbied the influential Republican operative Mark Hanna, who headed the Republican National Committee (RNC) at the time, for a plank in the GOP platform backing the gold standard. The party's ultimate embrace of that standard helped generate significant contributions for William McKinley. Morgan himself donated $250,000 (about $9 million today) to the Republican nominee, and John Rockefeller's Standard Oil donated the same amount. As for the Democrats, they backed free silver and lost the election on a total budget of $400,000 — $100,000 less than the Republicans received from those two deep pockets alone. Morgan and Rockefeller made good on their investments: With the party's stance in favor of gold in place, President McKinley pursued gold-standard legislation, which he signed into law in 1900.

Platforms are also important for parties that want to highlight a contrast between themselves and the incumbent administration. In 1920, for example, the GOP platform under Warren Harding excoriated Woodrow Wilson's taxes and unpreparedness for war. It also called for a new approach to government and the creation of "an executive budget." After voters elected Harding, he signed into law the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 as well as a tax cut.

In 1924, Calvin Coolidge — who took over when Harding died in 1923 — hit similar policy themes in his platform, albeit with different framing. This time, rather than criticizing the opposition's failings, the GOP platform celebrated the incumbent administration's accomplishments. Coolidge's platform doubled down on Harding's small-government agenda; he remains the last president to leave the federal government smaller than it was when he entered office.

At times, party platforms have been used to distinguish one party from another in ways intended to invite new voters to consider joining a party — or to apply pressure on the other party by threatening to entice such conversions. In 1943, for instance, Jewish leaders were seeking American support for a Jewish state in what was then known as Palestine. Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt was unreceptive to their arguments, so Benzion Netanyahu, an aide to Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky (and father of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), embarked on a novel strategy. As Benjamin Netanyahu would later write in his memoirs: "My father did something that Jewish leaders simply did not do in those days. He went to the Republicans [and] he got the Republican National Convention to adopt a platform supporting a Jewish state." The Democrats followed suit with their own plank in favor of a Jewish state, helping pave the way for President Harry Truman's recognition of Israel four years later.

During the post-war period, perhaps no issue generated more controversy than civil rights. In 1948, the Democrats were struggling to hold onto both Southern and black voters. Party bosses wanted to maintain a bland, non-committal stance, but Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey engaged in a nine-day fight to add more forceful language to the platform. Party elder and Rhode Island senator J. Howard McGrath warned the young Humphrey: "This will be the end of you." But Humphrey stuck with it, ultimately delivering a 10-minute speech to the convention that declared: "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." The 15,000 people in the hall gave him an eight-minute standing ovation. The convention voted to adopt Humphrey's plank.

Throughout that mid-century period, platforms often had a direct effect on the governing that followed an election victory. One example comes from 1952, when America was enmeshed in the Cold War. Life magazine editor Henry Luce, who wanted to ensure that the Republican Party adopted a strong anti-communist stance, enlisted Dwight Eisenhower advisor John Foster Dulles to lay out a foreign-policy agenda in his publication. The ensuing article, "A Policy of Boldness," formed the basis for the Republican platform's foreign-policy plank, which Dulles also wrote. When Eisenhower won the election, he appointed Dulles secretary of state.

These days, the Republicans and Democrats are so far apart politically that their platforms seem unlikely to contain overlapping points. In the not-too-distant past, however, the two parties often jockeyed to gain an advantage on one side of a particular issue. In 1976, for example, both parties wanted to portray themselves as strong advocates for human rights, largely to highlight the contrast between their policy vision and the practices of the Soviet Union. As a result, both the Democrats and the Republicans incorporated strong human-rights planks into their platforms. The Republican version read:

We shall expect the Soviet Union to implement the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the Helsinki Agreements, which guarantee the conditions for the free interchange of information and the right to emigrate, including emigration of Soviet Jews, Christians, Moslems and others who wish to join relatives abroad.

The analogous sentence in the Democratic platform read:

Our stance on the issue of human rights and political liberties in the Soviet Union is important to American self-respect and our moral standing in the world. We should continually remind the Soviet Union, by word and conduct, of its commitments in Helsinki to the free flow of people and ideas and of how offensive we and other free people find its violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cold Warriors of both parties could have taken comfort in either sentiment.

On the Democratic side, the human-rights provision came about thanks to the efforts of U.S. Senate candidate Daniel Patrick Moynihan. To help ensure that the provision included unmistakably anti-communist language, Moynihan entered into a deal with left-wing anti-war activist Sam Brown, who was critical of the abuses being perpetrated by Latin American dictators. Moynihan's offer to Brown was simple: "I'll denounce your dictators if you denounce mine." The final platform criticized not only the Soviet Union, but all authoritarian regimes — including those in Latin America.

Things were more contentious on the Republican side that year. Ronald Reagan was challenging Gerald Ford for the nomination, and the selection was still unresolved going into the convention. As Ford strategist Stuart Spencer later observed, "[t]he thing that I feared the most in Kansas City was the platform. It's like you got a matchbook and you got gasoline sitting there. If you throw a match on it, you've got emotions that just start going crazy."

Ford won the nomination, but Reagan was pleased with the platform — its language about "morality in foreign policy" was a concession to the latter and an implicit critique of Ford's policy of détente with the Soviets. When the victorious Ford invited Reagan to address the convention, Reagan won over the arena with what former Eisenhower aide Stephen Hess recalled as "a marvelous little speech, which pretty much declared him as the next Republican candidate." In the speech, Reagan praised the Republican platform as a "banner of bold, unmistakable colors with no pale pastel shades." Ford may have secured the nomination that year, but both Reagan and his platform message had captured the party.


The advent of the internet has helped make platforms less relevant in more recent elections. Since voters can learn whatever they want about the parties from their various screens, the parties tend to see the platforms more as vulnerabilities than as opportunities. Commentary editor and White House veteran John Podhoretz has observed that party conventions have devolved from allowing the other side to have its four days in the sun to social-media takedowns of the party — and its platform — in real time. The parties have adjusted their platform rhetoric accordingly, leading to both parties producing what veteran political columnist Robert Novak called "pablum" platforms in 2004.

Still, some key issues do appear within platforms in revealing ways. In 2012, for instance, the Democratic platform failed to mention the aspiration of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital. After the provision's absence came up as a potential vulnerability for Democrats in the fall election, platform chair and former Ohio governor Ted Strickland attempted to rectify the problem, announcing to the convention: "President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and our party's platform should as well."

Democratic National Committee chairman Antonio Villaraigosa then tried to resolve the issue via voice vote. But the voices opposing the provision were strong, and party leaders needed (and expected) a two-thirds vote for passage. Villaraigosa tried again, saying, "let me do that again. All of those delegates in favor, say aye." Once again, it was clear that a majority of the delegates did not vote for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, let alone the required two-thirds.

Despite the apparent results, Strickland and Villaraigosa had clearly been assigned to add the Jerusalem provision to the platform. They stood paralyzed before the uncooperative crowd, like actors in a play whose fellow performers had stopped following the script. To complete the task, Villaraigosa then announced (inaccurately): "In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds have voted in the affirmative. The motion is adopted, and the platform has been amended as shown on the screen. Thank you very much. Thank you." Many in the crowd booed.

The incident made it clear to all who were watching that the pro-Israel rhetoric in the platform did not reflect the views of the bulk of the Democratic delegates — something that became even clearer a decade later when many on the progressive left voiced support for Hamas in the wake of its pogrom of 2023 that slaughtered over 1,200 Israelis.

On the Republican side, Israel became an issue in negotiations over the 2016 platform. David Friedman, a pro-Israel lawyer and friend of Donald Trump's, saw a strategic opportunity in the platform that year. In his memoir Sledgehammer, Friedman noted that Trump and Jared Kushner — Trump's son-in-law who would become one of his top presidential aides — did not have a high opinion of party platforms, calling them "aspirational" and claiming that they "don't matter that much to voters." Though Friedman sympathized with their view, he felt that "Israel had become an exception" and cited the 2012 Democratic blowup over Jerusalem outlined above as an example.

Friedman worked with Trump aide Jason Greenblatt behind the scenes to reshape the GOP's stance on Israel. The resulting platform, as he recalled, "supported recognition of Jerusalem and made no mention of a two-state solution," which represented "a break from the Republican Party platform of four years earlier." The change, he added, "was picked up across the media and greeted with delight from activists within the party."

Friedman had more than politics in mind: He was looking down the road at administration policy. As he wrote in his memoir, "[g]etting the platform out was very important to both Jason and me. It was a way to commit Candidate Trump to certain policies that we saw as essential to our support."

The strategy worked. "With the platform approved by the Republican Party," Friedman recalled, "we now had a written set of policies on which we could hopefully run and ultimately govern." Once Trump won the election, he named Friedman ambassador to Israel, and Greenblatt became a White House aide. Ambassador Friedman would use the platform language on Israel to support his arguments during internal disputes with the typically less pro-Israel State Department. Here, too, his approach proved effective: He helped convince the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.


The Republican approach to the platform changed significantly in 2020. Forty-four years after Reagan declared victory in defeat by influencing and then praising his party's platform, the RNC adopted a brief, 323-word "resolution" in place of a traditional platform. That resolution did not mention any policies; instead, it resolved that "the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda."

The document spent most of its 16-score words explaining why the RNC was choosing to ignore 150 years of tradition in "[forgoing] the Convention Committee on Platform." The stated reasons included the difficulty of gathering party members during the pandemic and the concern over "a small contingent of delegates formulating a new platform without the breadth of perspectives within the ever-growing Republican movement."

While the pandemic did limit face-to-face interaction, and the number of convention attendees was smaller than usual, those opposed to drafting a platform had a larger purpose in mind. According to an Axios report, the Trump administration, led by Jared Kushner, had attempted to significantly overhaul the party platform in December 2019 — months before anyone thought Covid-19 would lead to the massive disruptions it eventually brought about. In a meeting with top White House officials, Kushner laid out his vision of a platform that could fit on a single, pocket-sized card — a stark contrast to the trend of platforms growing longer over time.

Issuing the resolution was not the end of the story. Kushner got his wish on August 23, 2020, when the Trump campaign — not the RNC — released a one-page document laying out President Trump's second-term agenda. This 600-word list of 50 items included multiple aspirations that could hardly be classified as policy proposals, including "Create 10 Million New Jobs in 10 Months"; "Create 1 Million New Small Businesses"; and, for the pandemic year, "Return to Normal in 2021." As for items that could be considered policy prescriptions, the document was frustratingly short on details, even for what is a typically detail-light document. One prescription, "'Made in America' Tax Credits," lacked a verb to let readers know whether the party opposed or supported said credits. Others, such as "Cut Prescription Drug Prices," could be open to multiple interpretations and different policy prescriptions.

Trump's operation had looked into creating an abbreviated platform even earlier as well. According to Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign's communications director, "[a]s recently as 2016, a more focused platform was considered." That did not happen, of course; the platform committee that year issued a fairly standard 58-page document.

But something significant changed between 2016 and 2020. In 2016, Trump's position in the party was uncertain. Even though he had secured a majority of the delegates before the convention, the period leading up to the event was filled with speculation about what might happen on the convention floor. By 2020, there was no doubt that Trump held the party's reins and would easily be renominated — allowing Kushner's "more concise platform" plan to come to fruition.

The party's refusal to draft a platform in 2020 had real consequences. To the extent that a party has internal differences — and today's GOP has plenty of those — developing a platform enables party leaders to hash them out in an orderly and transparent way. This process of give and take is important for consolidating party support and enabling members to reach out beyond the party faithful before the final stages of the presidential contest.

In 2020, conservatives and journalists made rare common cause in criticizing the party's curtailing of the traditional platform. Congressman Chip Roy of Texas remarked: "If you are trying to stick a platform on one page, I'd submit to you that there will be no real platform." The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty wrote that not having a platform conveyed the message that the party is "for whatever shifting sands Trump happens to be standing upon at the moment."

The predictable critique captured the essence of what was going on: Trump did not want a platform because he did not want to be pinned down by policy specifics. Conservatives like Roy want detailed platform language because details make it harder (though not impossible) for a president to deviate from the platform. In other words, Trump did not want a platform for precisely the reason that conservatives wanted it.

The no-platform approach may give presidents more flexibility, but it brings with it several perils for an administration and a party.

For starters, failing to resolve issues at the convention makes it harder to resolve them while governing. The infighting that took place within the Trump White House, where multiple perspectives — Reince Priebus's traditional Republicanism, Kushner's Manhattanite globalism, and Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller's MAGA brand of politics — could all plausibly claim to represent what Trump stood for, occurred during the term that followed the drafting of the 2016 platform. Without a platform, a second Trump term is likely to encounter similar challenges.

Additionally, the party's refusal to clarify its stances increased the likelihood that the GOP's policies would be based on one person's preferences rather than on a coherent agenda. This may have been what Trump wanted, but it makes it harder for a party to carry on a tradition, explain its policy preferences to outsiders, and find a successor once the party's standard-bearer has left the political stage.

Another problem with refusing to create a new platform is that platforms have an expiration date. As Bill Gribbin, who helped draft eight GOP platforms, lamented in 2020: "The party could use [the 2016 version] to recruit and sell G.O.P. candidates down the ballot. But how would you react to a sales pitch four years out of date?"


From the moment they put their hand on the Bible to the moment their successor does the same, presidents are inundated with difficult decisions. The only way to handle this tidal wave is by resorting to some kind of triage.

When confronted with policy challenges in the George W. Bush White House, aides like myself would first look to see if President Bush had said something about an issue, and then look to the Republican Party platform to see where the convention that nominated the president stood. This process was not dispositive; there were often changed circumstances and areas of nuance. But knowing where the party stood gave us a head start in determining what the answer should be on a thorny policy question.

My mentor Ben Wattenberg, a former Lyndon Johnson speechwriter who became increasingly associated with the right as the Democratic Party drifted left, worked on multiple platforms during his time as a Democratic operative. His fights with the left during those platform-committee battles of the 1960s and '70s helped him understand the full extent of the left's policy proposals, ultimately driving him away from the Democratic Party. AEI senior fellow and Dispatch founder Jonah Goldberg, who also worked for Wattenberg, once recalled the latter's views of platforms on his podcast, The Remnant:

My old boss Ben Wattenberg used to defend party platforms. He would say they don't matter that much but they also tell you what the party wants you to think it thinks about things. And that's instructive, even if it has no binding power, and even if it doesn't move voters, and all that stuff. It gives you an insight into the collective consciousness of an organization or an institution.

As we head into the 2024 election, at a time when party ideologies are muddled and politicians advertise their postures rather than their policies, platforms are more important than ever. We need those insights into the parties' "collective consciousness" to understand where those institutions are, where they are going, and whether we should entrust their representatives with our precious votes.

Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a visiting fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and a former senior White House aide. He is the author of five books on the presidency, including the forthcoming The Power and the Money: The Epic Clashes between American Titans of Industry and Commanders in Chief (Regnery Publishing, 2024).


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