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Political parties are supposed to stand for something. At least that's the tradition in America and other democratic countries.

But more and more, parties specifically sidestep tough issues because their candidates don't want to be harmed by the association.Utah has had a traditionally weak party structure over the years, partly because of our open primary system, where anyone can vote in a Democratic or Republican primary election; partly because we don't require citizen registration by party, so people aren't easily identified politically; and partly because of Utahn's general independent nature.

This current political season has two shining examples of political spinelessness by the Republican and Democratic parties.

For the Republicans, their gutless nature is seen in the removal of sales tax from food.

For the Democrats, it's abortion.

Leaders in both parties want to stay away from those issues--and have recommended to their respective state delegates that those items not to be addressed in party platforms--the official political ideals of political parties.

Republicans will set their platform in their state convention this weekend, Democrats the following weekend.

Now, platforms usually aren't taken seriously. They're rarely mentioned by politicians unless they see some political advantage in their opponents' platform.

But it's the nature of the parties' side-stepping that I find amusing.

Friday night, Republicans gather in their state convention to discuss their platform. Party Chairman Richard Snelgrove has already called for delegates not to take a stand on taking the sales tax off food -- which will appear on November's ballot.

Snelgrove's argument in favor of a neutral stand is a wonderful example of political doubletalk. He says since the voters will decide the issue in the ballot box, the Republican Party has no business taking a stand -- thus telling them how to vote. How strange, a political party that won't tell voters how to vote. What then is the job of a political party?

Democrats are equally weak-kneed in their approach to abortion. They won't be taking a stand on abortion in their platform, leaders say, but will be discussing "related" issues to the abortion question -- counseling, sex education and adoption services.

What all this boils down to, of course, is that these issues cause personal and political problems for party leaders--problems they can't solve so will sidestep through silence.

GOP Gov. Norm Bangerter has already come out against the food tax removal. So Republican Party leaders and rank-and-file members -- who are conservative and usually in favor of cutting taxes -- would have to go against their top elected official. The leaders don't want to do that.

"The sales-tax issue to us is what abortion is to the Democrats," says one GOP leader. "We can't figure out a way around it."

Democratic Party leaders know that abortion -- in conservative Utah -- is a pivotal issue. In only a few liberal areas in the state could a pro-choice candidate win office. For the party as a whole to be prochoice would mean defeat for Democratic candidates across the state.

So, when the going gets tough, the political parties get going -- into the hinterlands where they won't get into trouble and won't have to stand for something.