Drafting Planks: Parties Begin 'Battle of Ideas'
KANSAS CITY, MO.--Both Republicans and Democrats began the Presidential-election-year ritual of soliciting advice on their party's platform last week.
And the early betting from participants here, where the Republicans held a 12-hour hearing on domestic policy, was that education and child care would emerge as key planks in both parties' documents--but that the Republicans would win the "battle of ideas'' with greater specificity.
"We're going to force the Democrats to take us on in this battle of ideas,'' said Senator Robert W. Kasten Jr. of Wisconsin, co-chairman of the Republican platform committee, at the May 31 forum. "They are avoiding ideas, they want to step back.''
Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire gave an indication of what one of Vice President George Bush's key ideas would be. He said the candidate would use the phrase "investing in our children'' as a theme for his campaign.
Dan Schnur, the Bush campaign's assistant press secretary, said that while "it's not an official theme,'' the idea had been "mentioned as something that could be an emphasis.''
Among the more than 100 participants at the Republican gathering were representatives of the National Education Association and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.
The Democrats had managed, four days earlier, to pack discussion of some of the same domestic issues into a one-hour "teleconference'' from the campus of the University of Texas at Austin that was broadcast to four other colleges across the country.
"We are asking the people for ideas,'' said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas at the Democratic forum on May 26. "Our goal is to facilitate a national dialogue.''
Robert B. Schwartz, an education adviser to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, the likely Democratic nominee, said last week that "jobs and economic opportunity and the role of education in bringing economic opportunity clearly are one of the Governor's major themes.''
Indications from both events, however, suggest that the two parties will be using decidedly different tactics to convey their ideas. The platforms, which purport to define the parties' agendas for the 1988 campaign--and for the succeeding four years--are likely to differ not only in content, but also in style.
The Republicans appear poised to produce a document similar to the 1984 platform, a detailed statement of political philosophy that took up 30 pages of fine print in the Congressional Record.
'Letter to the People'
Beginning with a theme-setting "preamble,'' the 1984 Republican platform hit all the top national issues, including a complex discussion of farm recovery, and featured sections on such topics as soil and water conservation, the equal-opportunity concerns of Native Hawaiians, and the reform of maritime law. Three pages were devoted to education.
The 1984 Democratic platform was similarly comprehensive. But this year Democrats plan to write a more general platform, one that Paul G. Kirk Jr., chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has described as "a letter to the American people.''
In proposing the shorter platform last December, Mr. Kirk said some state and local Democratic candidates had attacked the platform four years ago, in an effort to distance themselves from the Presidential campaign. He vowed that this year "every Democratic candidate'' would be able to support it.
"For a change,'' Mr. Kirk said, "most Democrats might actually read it.''
Another reason for writing a short platform, some political observers say, is to ensure a smooth nominating convention, avoiding divisive infighting while the television cameras are rolling.
No 'Simple Statements'
On the Republican side, moves to encourage similar brevity seemed to fall on deaf ears last week.
Senator Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, who has been mentioned by some political commentators as a possible Vice Presidential running mate for Mr. Bush, asked the platform committee to "avoid the temptation to make the platform a catch-all, say-all, promise-all collection of words that lacks both priorities and focus.''
The platform, she said, "should be a relatively short, simple, and direct statement of Republican principles and goals.''
But committee members adamantly disagreed.
"That's not what I see emerging from this process,'' Gov. Kay A. Orr of Nebraska, chairman of the Republican platform committee, told reporters here. "It's very difficult to take the complex issues that we face as a country and reduce them to simple statements.''
"In 1984,'' she said, "we had a platform that was very specific, addressed many areas, and as a result Congress did address those issues.''
"The 1980 and 1984 platforms are the soul of the Republican party,'' said Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., chairman of the Republican National Committee. "We want to take the fundamental philosophy of our party and come up with conservative approaches to solve the problems that we see today.''
The Democratic teleconference produced a consensus on some general proposals for education, including increased funding for Head Start, Chapter 1, the new G.I. Bill, and the development of some type of federal tuition-savings plan.
"You can't characterize those programs as 'tax and spend, tax and spend,''' said Roland Burris, vice-chairman of the D.N.C. and Indiana's state comptroller. "Those programs have paid off.''
More college loans and scholarships should be provided, participants said, perhaps with a tie-in to military or civilian national service.
The 10 participants in the Democrats teleconference urged the party to support early-childhood programs, including day care, although no mention was made of a Democratic bill on day care now in the Congress. The legislation, titled the "act for better child care'' or A.B.C. bill, has come under fire from conservatives who claim it would force church-related day-care centers out of business.
"Education has to start in prenatal care and continue through adult literacy and job training,'' said Gov. Ray Mabus of Mississippi.
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado said the platform should include a statement on "frugality and efficiency in government.''
"The party needs to send a strong message that it's not just a matter of putting more money into the programs, its a matter of reforming the programs, so that we really do deliver an effective service,'' Mr. Romer said.
Governor Clinton called for a "national policy'' on research in higher education that would equalize the federal funding for research throughout the country.
Other areas the Democrats stressed were bilingual education, the improvement of rural schools, efforts to reduce teen-age pregnancy rates, and vocational education.
At the gathering here, Republicans urged their party's platform writers to include a strong and specific statement on child care. But there was disagreement on its content between moderates, who favored federal regulations to ensure safety, health, and quality, and conservatives, who said such concerns were state functions.
Secretary Bennett said federal regulations--even minimal standards--would be "redundant.''
"The problem is, you rarely get minimal federal standards,'' he said. "What we need is a set of ideas and principles.''
Ms. Orr, on the other hand, noted that overseeing health and safety is "hard to divorce from the federal government's responsibility.''
"There are always going to be federal regulations in almost any solution to the problems we face,'' she said. "But the less there is in the way of regulation and the more in the way flexibility, is what I'll be seeking.''
Conservatives Phyllis Schlafly and the Rev. Jerry Falwell charged that current Democratic child-care proposals would institute "a federal baby-sitting program'' that would become, in Ms. Schlafly's phrase, a "new bureaucracy of federal busybodies.''
They and other witnesses said Republicans should support an expansion of the current child-care tax credit, or another type of income-tax credit, which would include all children and allow parents to choose from among a number of types of day-care arrangement, including secular programs, programs offered by religious institutions, and care by relatives.
"Clearly, we're going to emphasize choice, we don't want to shut off church-based care,'' said Mr. Kasten during a meeting break. "This is an issue we didn't address in 1984.''
'Seize The Initiative'
On elementary and secondary education, Republicans said they would try to continue the agenda set by Mr. Bennett. Platform-committee members and witnesses lavished praise on the outgoing Secretary, and Mr. Bennett himself did not demur.
"We have, I think, helped change the terms of the national debate on education,'' he said. "We can do more to see to it that government policies in general focus on what is fundamental, on 'what works.'''
Mr. Bennett said the party should "seize the initiative, and advance a vigorous social and political agenda based on time-honored values.''
Other speakers, including Connie Hubbell, a member of the Kansas Board of Education and a board member of the National Association of State Boards of Education, asked the party to support "strong leadership'' in appointing a new education secretary.
But Gordon Heaton, president of the Colorado Education Association, an affiliate of the N.E.A., urged the party to "renew a commitment to public education.''
"The answer to our economic and educational needs is not prayers, platitudes, and private schools,'' he said.
The platform-drafting process will continue through the nominating conventions. The Republicans will hold a forum on economic growth in Los Angeles on June 30, and delegates will spend the first week of the convention in New Orleans meeting in committees and holding a final hearing on the platform.
The Democrats held conferences late last week in Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, on economic policy and the family, respectively. State Democratic committees also held platform hearings last month.
Between June 10 and 12, a 15-member committee will meet to draft the platform, which will then be presented to the delegates for approval.