During a quick break in the middle of a long day of crafting the Republican Party’s 2016 platform in a convention center basement this week, David Barton darted over to the buffet and grabbed his lunch — two small dry rolls.
“I have some jerky with me,” said Barton, explaining that’s also his sustenance when he travels by horseback — so why not when he is trying to restore American government to the interpretation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that held sway when hooves were the main mode of transportation.
At Republican conventions — this is his sixth, and his third on the Platform Committee — Barton is the keeper of the Constitution and, as importantly, the Declaration of Independence, which he said, Democrats despise because of their disdain for liberty.
Barton, a former vice chairman of the Republican Party in Texas, is also, for those on the Christian right, among the wise heads whose judgment on Donald Trump matters.
Barton headed a super PAC supporting U.S. Sen Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during his presidential run. Cruz’s father, Rafael, is an acolyte of Barton’s Christian tack on American history. Barton has written book after book in Aledo, outside Fort Worth, surrounded by a huge collection of writing and artifacts from the early days of the U.S. He is the founder and president of WallBuilders, which presents a conservative take on the nation’s moral, religious and constitutional heritage. The name is taken from Nehemiah, who led a grass-roots movement to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
If there really were some secret underground resistance here in Cleveland waiting on Trump to falter and Cruz to make his move, Barton would be among those wearing a beret, smoking cigarettes and waiting for a signal at a local cafe. If the 2016 platform were squishy on conservative values, it would the likes of Barton and Tony Perkins of Louisiana, head of the Christian conservative Family Research Council, who was also an ardent Cruz backer, who would be crying foul.
But they are not.
“The last one was very conservative,” Barton said of the 2012 platform. “That was the most conservative in my lifetime, and this is probably more conservative. There was no management, there was no intrusion by the candidate or the consultants.”
“Trump made it very clear he wanted this process to work itself out,” he said.
Platform as a test
The platform was an especially important test, he said, because Trump, for all his celebrity, is very much an unknown quantity on policy and hardly a constitutional authority like Cruz, Texas’ former solicitor general.
If the platform tracks Trump on such issues as trade and immigration, it is clearly more staunchly and consistently to the right on such issues as same-sex marriage, transgender rights and abortion.
“Yeah, I think it takes on more significance for at least one constituency and that’s conservatives, because he did not try to step on their principles or values or things that are dear to them,” Barton said. “That will give us an increased sense of comfortableness.”
Both Perkins and Barton said that the platform wouldn’t have been markedly different or more conservative if Cruz were the presumptive nominee.
“A few specifics here and there, but I don’t think the tone would be different, I don’t think the issues would be different. I think it would be very close,” Barton said.
He estimated that more than 60 percent of the 112 members of the Platform Committee had supported Cruz, whose campaign excelled at putting those delegates in critical convention spots, like the Platform Committee.
Comfortable with Trump?
Barton’s own path to comfortableness with Trump began with being among the thousand evangelical leaders who met with Trump last month in New York, in both a large and a smaller setting.
In person, Trump displayed none of his customary bombast, said Barton, who lacks even the public bombast of many evangelical political figures.
“The more decisions he makes, the more comfortable or uncomfortable people will be,” Barton said.
“So this was a big decision,” he said of the platform. “The vice president will be a big decision.”
While Perkins said he thinks that low-key U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama would be a better complement to Trump than the volatile Newt Gingrich, Barton said Gingrich would have both a bigger upside and downside as a running mate.
“I could enjoy Gingrich,” he said. “If you want to have a guy go in and blow up an agency, Gingrich is the guy to do it because he knows where the pressure points are.”
But, on big decisions like the vice presidential pick, Barton said, he doesn’t have Trump’s ear or cellphone number.
Of his own fingerprints on the platform, Barton said he was most pleased with “getting constitutional thoughts, clauses and language in a number of areas from judges to separation of powers to executive operations to the numbers of enumerated powers.”
So, for example, the platform notes how few enumerated powers rest with the federal government. And, thanks to Barton, it quotes Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Papers No. 78 describing the judiciary as properly the weakest of the three branches of government.
“Everyone thinks that when the Supreme Court rules, that that is the Constitution,” he said, when, in fact, “from the design of it, (the judiciary) was never given as much power. Everybody is told the three branches of government are co-equal. But Federalist 78 said it was the weakest of all and said it was so weak that the liberty of the people will never be in danger from the judiciary.”
Like other members of the Platform Committee, Barton readily acknowledges that few people will read or care about what he and his colleagues spent two arduous days arguing and poring over.
And that likely will include Trump, who isn’t a policy wonk and isn’t bound to follow the platform.
But even if Trump never gives it a second thought, for those who toiled in Cleveland this week, it still matters.
American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove arrived in Cleveland on Sunday. He’s covering preliminary meetings this week in advance of the Republican National Convention next week. He has previously covered six GOP national conventions. He blogs mornings at First Reading on mystatesman.com.