Conservatives Pan Kushner Plan to Shrink GOP Platform

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It is no secret that Donald Trump remade Republicans in his own likeness, casting aside old orthodoxies and introducing new doctrines to transform the Grand Old Party into a more protectionist, more populist entity. What Jared Kushner wants to do, however, was secret. That is, until last week.

The son-in-law of the president and chief White House adviser has been working for months on a plan to overhaul the party platform. More specifically, as first reported in Axios, Kushner wants to shrink it.

A Kushner platform wouldn’t be like the 58-page tome that the GOP adopted as its platform four years ago. It wouldn’t be a single page, either. He reportedly envisions a statement of policy and principle that fits on a single index card and fits neatly in the front pockets of delegates.

It would also read differently. In conversations at the Eisenhower Office Building, Kushner reportedly proposed eliminating so-called alienating language and allegedly cited language in the last platform concerning “gay conversion therapy.” His aim? Attract more diverse voters.

Conservatives, especially the social conservative variety, are unhappy with that news and say what Kushner has been doing seems out of step with his more populist father-in-law.

“I get the feeling this is just a trial balloon,” Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, told RealClearPolitics. “Except it's a trial balloon that's got to be popped right away.” And toward that end, conservatives are slowly mounting a response. They don’t mind a condensed platform; one said it could be “shortened by pages, not by chapters.” They do worry about ideological concessions; another added that “what some people call alienating language is actually defining language.” They are preparing for a fight while the Republican National Committee is still working out how to have a national convention in the COVID-19 era.

While campaigns view platforms as unwieldy and often controversial documents, activists and stakeholders see them as their chance to direct the party. At the 2016 convention, social conservatives on the platform committee fought to codify the party’s stance on abortion and traditional marriage and even single-sex bathrooms in public places. The document also dealt with everything from diplomacy to energy policy, providing an exhaustive roadmap for how delegates expected Republicans to govern if elected.

Conservatives fear that if Kushner tries to turn the platform into a sales pitch, Republicans will move in a more moderate direction. They say this is unacceptable and also a misunderstanding. The document isn’t about attracting new voters. It is a paper cudgel, they insist, a sort of contract they can use to hold the party accountable.

“If you are trying to stick a platform on one page, I’d submit to you that there will be no real platform,” Rep. Chip Roy told RCP. “It'll be a handful of soundbites, effectively some tweets.”

Roy served as legal counsel to the platform committee in 2008, and the Texas Republican isn’t opposed to a condensed version in 2020. “But watering it down or letting it be decided by a handful of people in a dark back room and just dropping it at the convention or on Twitter is not how you build unity.” He worries that some may try to “remove the pen from the party faithful trying to hold folks accountable.”

A wonky fight is on the horizon. It normally takes place in a room crowded with 112 generally low-profile delegates from around the country who form a sort of ideological vanguard. This year they’ll be socially distanced. Some might even wear masks. Logistical details are forthcoming, but the committee will collectively stake out official Republican policy.

Roy argued the platform should reflect their priorities – not some poll-tested messaging cooked up at party headquarters. To do otherwise would be to ignore why Trump is in the White House.

“His election reflected the fact that the American people were pissed off at Washington not doing what it said it would do,” he said.  “The thing that we want to avoid is throwing overboard the voice of conservatives who elected the president.”

He isn’t the only one alarmed. When news broke about an abbreviated platform, one that might avoid social positions to be more palatable, activists and stakeholders started circling the White House, the Trump campaign, and the RNC. “It just isn’t a risk we are willing to take,” one prominent conservative told RCP, speaking on condition of anonymity to relate conversations more freely.

“I had conversations with people in the administration who were surprised themselves,” the conservative said. But platforms are rewritten every year, and Trump with his judicial nominees and executive orders has been a champion of social conservatism. So why all the alarm? The answer is Kushner himself.

“He is not really loyal to a lot of conservative ideals. He is loyal to whatever will get his father in-law elected,” a conservative operative explained, expressing a common sentiment of distrust in some circles on the right. Those factions know that Kushner may have masterminded Trump’s 2016 victory. They will note that he couldn’t vote for his own father-in-law in the primary. Kushner and Ivanka Trump, then New York socialites, were still registered Democrats.

“It’s not just a concern of ours that he is trying to consolidate power at the White House, but also that he is trying to consolidate power when it comes to a platform,” the operative added. “I think this could be the difference between the right people voting.”

The RNC and the Trump campaign say that’s nonsense.

“A more concise platform is just one of many options being discussed, and it is in fact not a new idea. As recently as 2016, a more focused platform was considered,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told RCP.

“Ultimately, the platform committee of the convention will make the decision, but as is the case with all national conventions, the president’s campaign will play a major role. In any event, we expect the 2020 platform to be the most conservative in history and one which will reflect the president’s conservative imprint on the Republican Party.”

Individual delegates, in other words, are still behind the wheel while Trump, their champion, will have significant say. The RNC said as much as well.

“The platform committee and convention delegates will craft and formalize the official party platform. The RNC is grateful for the hard work they put into it. We expect the final platform to reflect the conservative ideals President Trump has fought for and implemented,” added spokesman Mike Reed.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Center and regular Trump interlocutor, doubts that conservative fears will be realized. He doesn’t deny the reporting. He just thinks that Trump wouldn’t bother trying to streamline the platform and risk angering his constituents.  

“In my communications with the administration, the White House has been consistent when it comes to the platform,” he told RCP. “It’s a critical tool to create the contrast needed between the two parties on the key policy issues.”

Steven Duffield hopes that is the case. The Republican strategist served as executive director of the platform committee in 2008, a process he remembers as arduous.

“It is perfectly understandable that the White House wants to streamline the process,” Duffield told RCP. “It has been the hope and dream of nominees probably for decades to make this simpler, but it is not likely to succeed. It’ll create far more problems with constituencies that there's no need to antagonize.”

Ahead of the August convention, conservatives are pressing that case, sounding alarm bells and rattling sabers at the establishment to ensure that party brass knows the base doesn’t want an abbreviated, more moderate platform.

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