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Will the Democratic Party’s platform actually matter this year?

The back-and-forth between the Clinton and Sanders camps over the platform has raised concerns that it will amplify divisions in the party. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders made clear early on that he saw the value in the platform, and as his chances to contest the nomination dimmed, he took steps to ensure influence on the platform.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

For the first time in a long time, a political party’s platform — those lengthy statements of policy that get churned out every few years and are mostly forgotten — might matter in a presidential election.

The campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which ignited a grassroots movement and captured an unlikely 23 primary or caucus victories, has more or less accepted that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

But Sanders and his supporters are looking to find ways to cement the progressive politics that they say his campaign vindicated — and they’ve decided that the Democratic Party’s 2016 platform is an ideal place to do that, moving aggressively to influence the drafting of the document.

Sanders appointed five people to serve on the party’s 15-member committee to draft the platform, including 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison. Over the course of several meetings, he and other committee members have been pushing to include ideas like a $15 minimum wage and repudiation of trade agreements in the party’s statement of principle.

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Initial meetings have wrapped up, and while Sanders’ allies didn’t get everything they wanted, they are vowing to continue to fight. With the party convention in Philadelphia weeks away, and intra-party tensions not fully resolved, has the platform debate become a meaningful — or counterproductive — reflection of the future of the Democratic Party?

Sanders invests in the platform

U.S. political parties have issued documents affirming their broad principles and views on specific issues since the early days of American democracy. In modern politics, though, these platforms have rarely been controversial, or even noticed beyond an inner circle of party leaders and activists.

Typically, platforms are non-binding, and touch on a broad range of policy issues. (The 2012 Democratic platform was 32 pages long.) The ability to compel candidates to do one thing or another through the platform is pretty limited: its value is, primarily, symbolic and rhetorical.

But Sanders made clear early on that he saw the value in the platform, and as his chances to contest the nomination dimmed, he took steps to ensure influence on the platform.

The determination of Sanders and his backers to shape the platform has made the process notably different this year, Ellison told MinnPost.

“I can’t remember a platform drafting committee that had this much public attention,” he said. “Usually, platform drafting committees, they’re sort of under-the-radar affairs, but this time it was pretty serious.”

Usually, the Democratic National Committee appoints all 15 people who serve on the platform drafting committee, but in May, Sanders forced a never-before-seen compromise: he would get to name five appointees to the panel, while the DNC chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, would name four appointees, and the Clinton campaign would name six.

Party leaders, aiming to resolve the divisions that emerged between Sanders and Clinton supporters during the primaries — and criticism that the party rigged the process for Clinton — granted Sanders the leverage in an effort to smooth over those tensions.

Ultimately, Sanders appointed Ellison, along with climate activist Bill McKibben, Arab-American Institute President James Zogby, Princeton professor Cornel West, and Native American activist Deborah Parker.

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The other two camps also named notable progressives to the committee: Wasserman Schultz appointed Rep. Barbara Lee of California, herself a former Progressive Caucus chair; while Clinton appointed Neera Tanden, head of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank, and the outspoken Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.

To many Sanders supporters, this was a win. The Nation magazine, which endorsed Sanders, proclaimed the platform committee had a “progressive majority.”

Battles over TPP, climate policy

The 15 members of the drafting committee met three times — in D.C., Phoenix, and St. Louis — to come up with a draft that will be considered by a broader, 187-member platform committee in Orlando this weekend.

What they produced is a platform that is undoubtedly progressive, but one that does not go as far as many Sanders backers would have liked.

Ellison argued there is strongly progressive language in the platform, specifically mentioning its call to abolish capital punishment — a first for a Democratic platform — along with support for a financial transactions tax and a modernization of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that prevented FDIC-backed banks from investing in higher-risk financial products.

The platform draft includes other items progressives are sure to like, such as measures to hike taxes on the wealthy, a repeal of a law that restricts use of federal funds for abortion, and a call for the restoration of voting rights for felons.

Party brass is spinning it as the most progressive Democratic platform ever, which could very well be true. That being said, Ellison, Sanders, and others have nevertheless expressed disappointment at what didn’t make it into the platform.

The Sanders camp felt strongly that the platform should specifically condemn the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. Sanders, in his post-primary meeting with President Obama — a lead TPP supporter — reportedly signalled his intent to do just that.

A strong, anti-TPP amendment failed; the draft currently just outlines the party’s broader principles on fair trade. “I didn’t understand why they didn’t adopt that. I thought it was a mistake,” Ellison said.

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Beyond that, progressives are disappointed that the platform excludes language on fracking, lacks advocacy for a carbon tax, and does not support single-payer health care. Some are also unhappy that the platform does not include stronger language about Israel and Palestine, with Zogby pushing for use of the word “occupation.”

Summing it up, Sanders said last week, “We lost some very important fights.”

Bad blood ahead?

In the aftermath of the drafting committee’s work, some tension has surfaced: some in the Sanders camp have accused Clinton supporters of blocking their ideas.

In an essay in Politico, McKibben said the Clinton campaign “obstructed change” on the platform, citing the narrow defeat of several climate change amendments he filed, like one to ban fossil fuel extraction on federal lands.

“The Clinton campaign is at this point rhetorically committed to taking on our worst problems, but not willing to say how,” McKibben said. “Which is the slightly cynical way politicians have addressed issues for too long — and just the kind of slickness that the straightforward Sanders campaign rejected.”

Carol Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and a Clinton appointee to the committee, fired back, saying it was “disappointing to see other members of our committee accusing the Clinton campaign of obstructionism.”

Browner claimed the Sanders camp set up an unfair litmus test of what it means to be “serious” on climate, saying they wrongly claim the platform “falls short because it does not include their preferred amendments to enact a carbon tax and immediately ban all oil and gas production through hydraulic fracturing.”

‘I don’t think we should throw in the towel’

Ellison struck a more conciliatory tone and did not accuse anyone of blocking the process. “We had a debate, we debated key issues… I was happy going out,” he said.

This weekend, the full platform committee in Orlando will weigh the draft, offer more amendments, and then vote on a final draft to send to the convention in Philadelphia, where more debate will occur before a final platform is ratified.

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Ellison is vowing to continue the fight for what he and his allies couldn’t get in the previous three meetings. “I still believe we should use the platform process in Orlando to strengthen it. I don’t think we should throw in the towel,” he said.

The back-and-forth between the camps has raised some concern that the platform debate might be counterproductive, amplifying divisions between Sanders and Clinton supporters, who grew increasingly antagonistic as the primary process wore on.

Ellison isn’t worried about divisions, and affirmed that the platform, once an afterthought, is not just a guidepost for the future of the party — it’s a chance to show voters that Democrats are serious about ideas.

“I’m not concerned about a contentious debate,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who thinks it’ll help Trump. For people who are watching to know that the Democratic Party believes in freedom of thought and robust debate on the issues, I don’t see it as a weakness. I don’t think people should worry about it.”