3Qs: Partisan politics and the party platform

The 2012 Republican National Convention concludes Thursday evening in Tampa, Fla., where delegates have already officially selected Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as the Grand Old Party’s nominees for president and vice president. But the week leading up to the RNC was fraught with political controversy. The newly released draft of the Republican Party platform, for example, includes controversial tenets on abortion, immigration and tax reform, prompting one New York Times editorialist to declare: “The mean-spirited and intolerant platform represents the face of Republican politics.” We asked two experts — William Mayer, a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence and William Crotty, a professor of political science and the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life, both in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities — to expound upon the political landscape just nine weeks out from the presidential election.

Controversial remarks on rape and pregnancy made by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri have temporarily shifted the nation’s focus from economic issues such as the budget deficit and tax reform to social issues such as abortion and women’s rights. The shift, some experts say, may prompt swing voters to side with President Obama in the November election. Going forward, how should the GOP handle Akin’s imbroglio in order to maximize the party’s appeal?

MAYER: Obviously, the best outcome for the Republican Party would be for Akin to withdraw and allow the party to put a more electable candidate in his place. Unfortunately, that will require Akin himself to agree to step down and he appears to be quite stubborn on this point.  So Republican leaders are doing the next best thing: denouncing his statement, publicly urging him to withdraw, not giving him any campaign money and otherwise putting as much distance as possible between Akin and the rest of the party.

Even if Akin doesn’t withdraw, I strongly doubt that this issue will matter much come November. In many years, some aspect of the abortion issue has become a major topic in the news — yet post-election polls invariably show that abortion is an important issue only for a very small part of the electorate, typically in the range of about 1 to 2 percent. It is hard to imagine that things will be different this year, when so many voters are (for good reason) very concerned about the state of the economy. Finally, Democratic posturing notwithstanding, I think most voters are smart enough to know that Akin’s statements do not represent the views of the Romney campaign.

New Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News polls of three swing states — Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, the site of this week’s RNC — underscored the unpopularity of the Romney-Ryan Medicare overhaul. What are the chances that Romney wins the presidency if voters who may very well decide the election view a major tenet of his economic policy as a failure?

MAYER: I think the Republicans will take some hits for their position on Medicare. That said, there are a number of factors that will cushion the blow, assuming they are properly communicated to the electorate. First, President Obama also proposed cutting Medicare, in his case to fund other aspects of his healthcare bill. Second, the “cuts” are much less substantial than they are portrayed to be by the Democrats. Those currently receiving Medicare will not be affected at all. Those who will become eligible will have the option of staying with the current system. (My sense of the polling evidence, by the way, is that the extent of popular dissatisfaction with the Romney-Ryan plan depends to a great extent on how the survey question is worded.)

Finally, there is also a widespread perception that, whatever its current popularity, Medicare is in long-term trouble, with trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. Romney and Ryan have at least proposed a serious plan to deal with these problems; Obama has entirely ducked the issue. Put it all together, and I think the Medicare issue is something of a wild card. It might hurt the Republicans; it might not. It depends in part on the way the issue is covered and explained in the media. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the media will probably provide coverage that is heavily slanted in Obama’s favor. A good example is the well-known PolitiFact website maintained by the Tampa Bay Times, which, its claims of non-partisanship notwithstanding, has basically become a shill for the Obama campaign.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who chaired the RNC platform committee, noted that the party platform “matters if people read it, and we wish more people would read it.” Some policy and legislative experts, on the other hand, have called the party platform “a source of scripture in policy-making” and a “guide for voters.” In your opinion, do party platforms really matter to voters or are they more focused on what the nominees have to say?

CROTTY: The Republican party should pray that nobody reads its platform. It is an extremely conservative, fundamentalist religious document. If you really think about it, the platform contains an economic policy that managed to give us the Great Recession as well as the most inequitable tax structure and income differentials since the pre-new Deal era. Fortunately, no one reads the platform or cares about it beyond interest groups who invest in the party and constituency proponents who look to see if their interests have been represented. In your idle moments, you might compare the 2012 Republican platform with the platforms up to the Reagan years. What was moderate Burkean conservatism has given way to what I consider a hardcore, extremist, minority vision of society and government. Having said all of this — and given all the problems that Romney has encountered, including a hurricane during the Tampa convention — it should be remembered that he is tied with Obama in the polls. The real campaign is just beginning.