On the eve of a convention that threatens disorder, Republicans should learn from the greatness of their party’s past.
The platform upon which Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860 was one and a half pages and 1200 words — quite a contrast to the 65 page, 33,000 word GOP platform of 2012. Written in the succinct and beautiful language of principle, it was meant to be read by all Americans, not just policy elites, and to guide great political action rather than make promises to special interests.
Might such a document today help to heal the divisions in the party as a preparation to healing those in the nation?
The platform on which Lincoln ran gestated over six years, one of its early drafts being written at Hillsdale College. It is easy to state what was in that first platform. It said that “the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Federal Constitution … is essential to the preservation of our Republican institutions; and that the Federal Constitution, the Rights of the States, and the Union of the States, must and shall be preserved.”
Its achievement was to reunite the Declaration and the Constitution at a time when one part of the country had departed from the nation’s principles and another from its constitutional forms.
Lincoln referred to the Declaration as an “apple of gold” adorned by a frame of silver — the Constitution. The Declaration supplies the principles and the Constitution supplies the structure of law to preserve those principles. At its founding, the Republican Party sought to put those two documents back together in order to reunite the nation.
Might it be wise for today’s Republicans to pursue a similar path?
Next month in Cleveland, the Republican Party could do nothing better than to emulate its original achievement. Its platform committee is at work right now and is there is strong interest in the idea of writing a short one. It should begin by stating in simple language the main issue at stake: does equality, the principle resounding from the Declaration of Independence, require a vast government to make Americans equal in ways that we are not? Or does it rather require a limited government that protects the decisive thing Americans have in common — our human nature and the rights inherent in that nature?
Following these principles, the Constitution establishes a form of law. All sovereignty is in the people, who ratified the Constitution through republican means. It delegates limited authority to three politically accountable branches at the federal level and reserves the rest to the people and to the states. For all its flexibility, the Constitution is not in this respect “living.” It establishes a powerful but limited government.
By contrast, our government today, under the doctrine of a “living” constitution, is a tool of limitless scope for the engineering of every aspect of our lives. As a result, we are becoming not citizens but subjects of a vast and failing bureaucratic social experiment.
The Trump candidacy, although unwelcome to many in the party, has the virtue of simplicity. He says that government belongs to, must respond to, and must in all cases seek to benefit the American people.
The federal government has become too centralized and many powers should be checked or returned to the states. The American people have the right to decide who joins them in citizenship. The military should be strong in defense of our nation and its interests. War should be undertaken cautiously, but when undertaken it should be fought fiercely and with the utmost speed. All agreements with other nations should be made in the interest of the American people. The social safety net, built at vast expense, should be made and kept secure.
One can find sanction for all of these opinions in the writings of Abraham Lincoln, and for many in that early Republican platform. One can also find general agreement in the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, Mike Lee and Tom Cotton, Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse.
For all the perceived division in the party, the ground is laid to agree upon core principles and a few policies to implement them.
The devil, of course, is in the details. But platforms should not be about details. They should be about principles and broad lines of policy. The details will be worked out in due course between the President and Congress, as is right and good. The platform supplies a direction, not a specific route.
A Republican platform resembling Lincoln’s would actually be read. It would be discussed at kitchen tables, across back fences, in the press, and on social media.
Such a platform would unite Republicans in common purpose, as it did at the beginning, and point the way to healing our divided nation.
Republicans should begin writing such a platform — now.