Tip-Toeing on the Platform
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Rosa DeLauro, the savvy Connecticut Congresswoman whom Democratic leaders and the Kerry for President campaign put in charge of drafting the party's 2004 platform, says, "It reflects John Kerry. It reinforces who John Kerry is."
Unfortunately, DeLauro is right.
Instead of a manifesto for change that might attract new support, or at least energize the base, the platform that delegates to the Democratic National Convention are expected to approve without debate is a tepid document largely defined by Senator Kerry's fear of being identified as a liberal – let alone as a progressive seeking to surf what polls suggest is a rising tide of antiwar sentiment.
Indeed, on the question of Iraq, the platform is every bit as difficult to pin down as the candidate. DeLauro, who unlike Kerry and vice presidential pick John Edwards voted against authorizing the Bush Administration's use of force against Iraq, argues that the platform rejects the Administration's approach to the world, and she can point to some strong words of condemnation. The Administration is taken to task for its willingness to "[rush] to war without exhausting diplomatic alternatives," to "bully rather than persuade" and to "[walk] away from more than a hundred years of American leadership in the world to embrace a new – and dangerously ineffective – disregard for the world." Yet, under the direction of Kerry aides and party chieftains, drafters meticulously avoided identifying the war as a mistake, refused to embrace any kind of timeline for bringing US involvement to a conclusion and failed to reject clearly the doctrine of making pre-emptive war. The draft document was so murky that Tom Hayden, the anti-Vietnam War activist and former California legislator, penned a letter warning that "the candidate and the Party establishment already are risking voter disillusionment with transparent vagaries on Iraq."
Backers of Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich's presidential bid joined antiwar activists in a last-ditch attempt to press the platform committee to improve the document in mid-July, at a final "dot the i's, cross the t's" session in Hollywood, Florida.
In a measure of the commendable determination of the Kerry campaign to keep Democrats in the fold, Kucinich backers were treated respectfully – especially after they delivered petitions signed by more than 200,000 supporters of an antiwar plank. But in the end they were ceded only a few words to take back to the faithful. Added to a section on getting NATO allies to contribute more military forces to the Iraq endeavor was a line that reads, "The U.S. will be able to reduce its military presence in Iraq, and we intend to do this when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence." It was a small victory that allowed one of the two Kucinich backers on the 186-member committee, Minnesotan John Sherman, to suggest that he could go back to "our folks" – antiwar activists – and argue for Kerry. But even that was too much for Sandy Berger, the Clinton Administration National Security Adviser who was monitoring the platform session for the Kerry campaign. "We didn't give up anything," he claimed.
Berger was wrong. He and the other guardians of platform language did give up something: the prospect that the document might actually attract new votes to the Kerry/Edwards ticket – especially the Nader voters, about whom Democrats still spend so much time worrying. While Kerry strategists got the platform they wanted, they failed to understand the essentials of Platform Writing 101. It is true that party platforms are not so widely read or analyzed here as they are in other democracies.
But Republicans recognized something in the 1980s that Democrats still have not figured out: that a platform ought to be a rousing call to arms, a powerful signal of what the party would do if given power, rather than a dull recitation of platitudes, conventional wisdom and established stances. Republicans write platforms to excite the cadres and attract fellow travelers who might not be all that impressed with party nominees. Democrats write platforms from a place of fear; they do everything in their power to avoid giving Republicans new targets for criticizing the party and its candidates – as if Karl Rove and his crew really need any help.
When allies of the Backbone Campaign, a grassroots movement to push the party in a progressive direction, offered an amendment spelling out steps the party would take to rewrite the Patriot Act and protect civil liberties, there was clear enthusiasm even among Kerry backers on the platform committee. To the surprise even of the Backbone Campaigners, they won enough support to force a rare debate at the Florida session. Then Berger and others rushed in to counsel caution. "This is very tricky," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, Congressional delegate from the District of Columbia, after announcing to the committee that she was speaking "regretfully" against the amendment. Warning that taking on the Patriot Act too forcefully would attract Republican charges that Democrats are soft on terrorism, she said, "Don't play into their hands." The amendment was defeated, leaving the national Democratic Party with a platform that is no stronger in its criticism of the Patriot Act than the platform of the Idaho Republican Party.
In fairness to the Kerry backers, and especially to DeLauro, a solid progressive who was handed a thankless task, the platform is an improvement on the documents produced by the party for the Clinton and Gore campaigns. In deference to Kerry's personal opposition to the death penalty, it drops references to backing capital punishment. It respects the advice of former Senator Gary Hart about how to do national security right – with real investments in infrastructure at ports and other vulnerable sites – and it adopts Kerry's good thinking on the need to achieve energy independence. It features tougher language about the need to include labor and environmental standards in trade agreements. It proposes a $7-an-hour minimum wage. It supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, a stance never before featured in a Democratic Party platform – although the call comes with strings attached that impede the establishment of a viable independent state. And, thanks to pressure from Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a Howard Dean backer who brought a measure of that campaign's feistiness as a platform committee member, it includes some strong language on the need to insure that "every vote is counted fully and fairly."
But even with that improvement, Jackson correctly notes, "This is a cautious platform. It says the one priority of Democrats is to beat George Bush. That's a good goal. But I'm still looking forward to the day when we recognize that the best way to elect Democrats is not with caution but with the boldness that builds mass movements for change."
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.