A vote by the Republican National Committee to leave the party’s 2016 party platform unchanged ahead of the November election has infuriated grassroots activists — including moderates who wanted to streamline its message and social conservatives who sought added language on emerging hot-button topics.
The decision by the party’s executive panel Wednesday means the GOP will maintain positions in the 4-year-old policy blueprint — including opposition to same-sex marriage and a nod to gay conversion therapy — and decline to stake out new positions on topics such as police reform, gender identity and third-trimester abortions. Party officials and senior Trump campaign aides had previously discussed ways to pare down the 58-page document to a single note card or abbreviated list of principles, but the effort broke down after several conservative groups registered complaints with the White House.
“America has changed incredibly since 2016 and not updating our platform to reflect that is an unforced error. The RNC should reconsider this terrible decision,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project and a proponent of updating the platform to oppose efforts to defund law enforcement or permit transgender minors to undergo gender reassignment treatments.
“We can’t go into 2020 with the same platform we had in 2016, and by limiting the ability to make changes you run the risk of having a stale platform. It will be tone deaf,” Schilling added.
At the other end of the GOP spectrum, Jerri Ann Henry, former executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said the decision effectively upholds “one of the worst platforms in terms of LGBT issues.” Henry, who has spent years fighting for marriage equality within the Republican Party, was supportive of a condensed platform that “harkens back to the party’s big principles and not the minute detail of every microscopic policy.”
But when plans to shrink the bloated platform fell through, the only suitable alternative in her view was to proceed with platform deliberations, which typically occur in the week or two prior to the party’s nominating convention.
“I would have loved to have seen them say, ‘Alright, that didn’t work, so let’s try to root out the issues.’ Going from one big attempt to consolidate the platform to keeping the 2016 platform is just a big punt,” she said in an interview Thursday, adding that reusing the 2016 platform is “in no way, shape, form or fashion … an OK solution.”
The widespread disappointment in the decision to leave the platform unchanged illuminates one of President Donald Trump’s major hurdles as he campaigns for reelection. The same traditional conservative groups that objected to condensing the platform in a way that would have eliminated controversial planks on abortion, parental rights and LGBT issues are now annoyed they can’t change the platform to strengthen its language on some of those same issues and others.
Such frustrations could dampen their enthusiasm for the president and down-ballot Republicans at a time when Trump is trying to preserve his relationship with social and religious conservatives who helped catapult him into the White House in 2016. The president’s support among those and other Republican-leaning constituencies has waned in recent weeks.
“There are a lot of things that could have gone into the platform that maybe could have appealed to more Americans than our party currently appeals to,” said Jennifer Williams, who became the first openly transgender delegate to attend a GOP convention in 2016.
RNC National press secretary Mandi Merritt blamed the situation on North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who has rejected the party’s plans for a full-fledged convention in his state.
“His refusal to work with the RNC on holding a full event in his state left our members with no choice. It would not be right for a very small group to craft a new platform without all of the delegates present,” Merritt said in a statement.
But in a tweet Friday morning, Trump appeared to call for a vote on the platform, a development that would have occurred in Charlotte. The president also said he favored an abbreviated platform.
“The Republican Party has not yet voted on a Platform. No rush. I prefer a new and updated Platform, short form, if possible,” Trump wrote.
The move will also prevent Trump and his team from highlighting accomplishments such as bipartisan criminal justice reform that would normally appeal to broad swaths of voters. “Anything positive that the Trump administration has achieved in the last three years can’t be put into this document now because this document is frozen,” Williams said.
Tom McClusky, president of the anti-abortion group March for Life, pointed to a section of the 2016 platform affirming the Mexico City Policy, a rule that bans U.S. funding to nongovernmental organizations that provide abortions. Trump, he said, not only reinstated the policy after it was suspended under by Obama administration, but expanded it too.
Indeed, the 2016 platform contains several references to policy changes Trump has already delivered, as well as criticisms of the “current administration” and “the president” that could cause confusion given Trump’s incumbency. For instance, the platform calls for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem, something Trump did during his second year in office. It also slams “the current Administration” for a ballooning national debt that “has placed a significant burden on future generation.” Though the reference was made when President Barack Obama was in office, the national debt has also increased significantly under Trump.
Another section of the platform describes the Middle East as “more dangerous now than at any time since the Second World War.” That creates a potentially awkward situation for party officials who praised Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria over a suspected chemical weapons attack in April 2018 and to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement the next month.
“It’s very sloppy to do it this way,” said Williams, the former GOP delegate.
The Trump campaign disputed that the document in its current form would present issues for the president’s reelection campaign. In a statement to POLITICO, senior counsel Justin Clark said, “President Trump won in 2016 with this platform and he’ll win again in 2020 with this platform.”
Another GOP operative close to the Trump campaign said the only people “who actually think the platform matters are naive,” while adding that most state Republican parties and county GOP chapters have their own platforms that local and state officials pay closer attention to.
For some of the president’s top religious and conservative allies, the RNC’s decision to keep the 2016 platform in place — a move officials attributed to the party’s broader plan to have a drastically scaled-back convention because of the coronavirus pandemic — was an improvement over the other possible outcome.
“Given the quarantine situation, we were concerned that decisions regarding the Platform not be made in proverbial smoke-filled rooms or through secret meetings in Washington, D.C.,” said Colleen Holcomb, president of the Eagle Forum, a group founded by the late conservative activist Phyllis Schafly, who played a key role in shaping past GOP platforms.
On Monday, the organization sent a letter to Trump and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel warning that “demolishing the platform will result in devastating division within the party.” But after learning of the party’s decision on Wednesday, Holcomb thanked the committee’s executive panel “for forgoing revision until a time when the full democratic process can be assured.”
Social conservative donors and groups, including the Eagle Forum, had pounced on the RNC after learning late last month that some of Trump’s top lieutenants, including senior adviser Jared Kushner, were exploring ways to simplify the party’s platform. That idea was one of several potential changes that had circulated among party officials and the Trump campaign.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, who helped to draft the 2016 platform, reached out to the administration to inquire about the talks. Marjorie Dannenfelser, another Trump ally who runs the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, got in touch with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to voice her concerns.
Some leaders reached out to the office of Vice President Mike Pence, himself an evangelical who is close to many social conservatives.
Ken Blackwell, a prominent conservative leader who sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board, used an appearance on Perkins’ radio show to send a blunt warning.
“The bottom line: We cannot afford to think of the platform as something that is just a marketing instrument that you can get and put in your vest pocket on a 5-by-3, 8-by-5 card. You just can’t do it,” Blackwell had said. “While I think the president is well positioned, it is not a slam dunk, and we cannot afford to, in fact, weaken the enthusiasm that people have built up over the last four years.”
Grassroots conservatives view the platform as a mechanism for accountability and worried that eliminating its explicit language on social issues would open the door for Republican candidates to be deliberately vague on key issues. Among their concerns was that mentions of abortion — which comes up 35 times in the 2016 version — would be reduced.
“The full platform is still essential for guiding policy, holding legislators accountable, and for distinguishing policy differences between Republicans and Democrats,” the Eagle Forum had written in its Monday letter to Trump and McDaniels. “We respectfully request that all efforts to streamline the overall platform, which has been forged over more than a century of committed grassroots activism, be resisted.”
With the Platform Committee scrapped, the only official business that is likely to take place next month in Charlotte, N.C. — the original location of the 2020 GOP convention — is the selection of Trump as the party’s nominee. The president’s acceptance speech is expected to take place at a separate facility in Jacksonville, Fla., though the Trump campaign and RNC were still finalizing those details this week.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.