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Journal of Policy History 13.4 (2001) 429-462

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Finding the Third Way:
Bill Clinton, The DLC, and the Democratic Platform of 1992

Stephen A. Borrelli


For those who subscribe to the theory of "responsible parties," party platforms should offer voters a basis for choosing between the parties and give politicians the basis for a mandate. 1 As Krehbiel points out, U.S. platforms are routinely dismissed as "amorphous" and "hardly ever . . . (serving) effectively as constraints during the campaign or after the election." 2 Yet, for better or worse, party platforms are the only authoritative statement of national party positions available, so political scientists have frequently used them as a basis for studies of party policymaking. Contrary to expectations based on the stereotype of "irresponsible" U.S. parties, studies by Gerald Pomper, Jeff Fishel, and others show that U.S. parties make fairly specific policy promises and are able to carry most of them out, even under the adverse condition of divided government. Cross-national studies show that although U.S. parties are not as successful as parties in parliamentary regimes, they look surprisingly good in international comparisons. 3

The surprising degree of success that U.S. parties have had in fulfilling their pledges can be traced partly to the surprising effectiveness of U.S. policymaking institutions, and partly to the nature of the pledges themselves. Unfortunately, studies of the content and fulfillment of platform pledges are more numerous than studies of platform construction. 4 The two most recent studies--analyses of the platform process in specific years--suggest two overlapping reasons for high pledge fulfillment rates. First, the people and ideas involved in writing the platforms are the very same people and ideas [End Page 429] involved in the day-to-day governing of the country after the election. In other words, platforms are written by mainstream professional policymakers in the executive and/or legislative branches using ideas that are already circulating among the policy community. In a study of how the drafting processes worked in 1980, Malbin concludes that a party with an incumbent president (i.e., the Democrats in 1980) produces an essentially "presidential document" that "build(s) incrementally on actions he took in during his first term"; the out-party (the Republicans in 1980) relies on "members of Congress and their staffs" as well as the "quasi-permanent Washington issue networks." 5 Sandy Maisel's analysis of the 1992 platform process confirms this finding and offers a second reason for platform success: in today's candidate-centered electoral process, the platform is simply an extension of the candidate's personal agenda. Party leaders "allow, even encourage, the (presidential) nominees' staff to write" the party platforms so that the candidates can feel as "comfortable" as possible running on them. 6

Taken together, these conclusions from 1980 and 1992 suggest a general tendency for presidential nominees and/or their congressional supporters to dominate the platform-drafting process. I argue that these conclusions do not reflect the substantial variation from election to election in presidential nominees' ability to obtain the platforms they want. (My interest in this article is in the platform process used by the Democrats; in the conclusion, I explain why the Republican process may work much differently.) Lacking a historical baseline for comparison, Malbin understates the volatility and unpredictability of the process for the Democrats in 1980, a year in which significant concessions were made to the supporters of a defeated presidential candidate. 7 For his part, Maisel understates the extraordinary smoothness of the process for the Democrats in 1992, a year in which the nominee was able to impose a new and highly specific policy agenda on a wary party. I begin my analysis by looking at the troubled Democratic platform processes in 1980, 1984, and 1988 in order to put in sharper relief the unusual constellation of forces that led to intraparty harmony in 1992. I note that although the current convention delegate selection process may lead to nomination races that are locked up well advance...


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