Every four years, as Democrats and Republicans plan for their national conventions, party leaders come together to decide on how to best dust off and shine up their respective parties' platform -- that catch-all proclamation that signals their political priorities and policy goals. Typically, the publication of these platforms results in a couple days of news stories, in which noteworthy alterations are documented and the other side levies partisan objections.
But this year, there's an interesting twist: Bernie Sanders -- the presumptive second-place finisher in the Democratic primary -- has been granted the opportunity to play a role on the platform committee. Which means that the Democratic Party's platform document may receive up to four days of coverage. Perhaps even five.
If this seems like a cynical way of viewing what is ostensibly an important party document, I invite you to muddle through the last Democratic party platform, authored in President Barack Obama’s re-election year. A red-hot manifesto it is not. Over the course of some 25,000-or-so words, the party outlines, in the safest possible terms, what it stands for. Everything is poll-tested to within an inch of its literary life.
Along the way, the platform is salted with marketing bromides and vague political platitudes. Credit is given to Obama for many accomplishments which need to, in the eyes of the party, continue being accomplished. And, in keeping with recent Democratic Party election-year strategies, much effort is undertaken to cast the GOP in a bad light ("The other guys are crazy!"). It's a tradition that will no doubt continue now that the presumptive Republican Party nominee is reality TV personality and North Pacific Subtropical Gyre garbage patch Donald Trump.
The objectionable nature of Trump's candidacy may be one thing on which this year's platform committee might be able to quickly agree. In an unusual move, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is allowing Sanders to name five appointees to the 15-member committee, instead of reserving the right to name the entire committee for herself. Under this arrangement, presidential rival Hillary Clinton's campaign will get to pick six members and Wasserman-Schultz will name four, including the committee chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
As Mother Jones' Kevin Drum points out, the buried news may be that Sanders is signaling that he understands he won't win this nomination. Whether or not this is true, the independent Vermont senator is hailing this as a major, substantive concession. And he's named a quintet of unconventional-by-party-insider standards as his emissaries: Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), environmental campaigner Bill McKibben, Native American activist Deborah Parker, racial justice advocate (and Obama critic) Cornel West and DNC member James Zogby.
Clinton's picks are decidedly more in keeping with her "barrier-breakers" theme: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union leader Paul Booth, former EPA head Carol Browner, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Ohio state Rep. Alicia Reece, former State Department official Wendy Sherman and Center for American Progress head Neera Tanden.
So, one way in which this arrangement will generate more news than is typically created by the platform committee will be watching West and Tanden co-author a document. But beyond the soap opera aspect of this collaboration, there are several areas in which Sanders' representatives could alter what's traditionally a very staid and cautious party declaration in significant ways.
Since it was announced that Sanders was going to have representation on the platform committee, the bulk of the attention has gone to his appointment of Zogby, whose pro-Palestinian leanings have made headlines. The Democrats' traditional platform calls for a two-state solution and an engaged peace process, but it's fairly clear which negotiating partner earns the party's favor. In the 2012 platform document, Israel is mentioned 16 times, as compared to three mentions of Palestinians. It touts how it's worked to maintain "Israel's qualitative military edge" -- highlighting the U.S.-funded Iron Dome system by which rockets from Hamas are thwarted -- while primarily focusing the demand-side of the platform on the Palestinians.
Sanders has called for a more "even-handed" approach to reaching a peace in recent weeks -- drawing a contrast with the more notably hawkish Clinton. Whether Zogby might be influential in this direction remains to be seen -- though he could draw attention to the ever-thorny issue of Israeli settlements, which was not mentioned at all in the 2012 platform document.
It is possible to overstate Zogby's influence in this regard: Clinton appointees Tanden and Sherman are both well-liked by progressive Israel policy shop J Street. And the Democratic Party is no stranger to conflict on this issue -- or surviving that conflict -- as 2012's row over the words "God" and "Jerusalem" demonstrated.
2. The Working Class
In the 2012 Democratic Party platform document, the middle class and the revival of their economic fortunes gets top billing. And it's presented as the overarching goal of the party itself. But while the middle class has had a stumbling renewal since the crash years, it's the working class that has truly taken it on the chin. You have to dig really far down into the document before you come to the place where the lives of those who face "poverty" and "food insecurity" are finally addressed.
Sanders' appointees could drive more attention to the unmet needs of these underserved citizens. This could be a place where some of the issues that have divided Clinton and Sanders on the debate stage -- such as the minimum wage -- are finally resolved. This should be of particular interest to Democrats, if only because of the efforts that have been undertaken by their Republican opponents to maintain and enhance barriers to voting. As the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out around the same time the Democrats redrafted their platform in 2012, "More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week."
In addition, while Democrats have, over the past four years, warmed to Silicon Valley innovators and the fruits of their labors (to say nothing of seamlessly swinging through the revolving door of political influence and Valley firms), in recent weeks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D. Mass.) -- who's been straddling the line between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns -- has heaped a hefty helping of skepticism on the "gig economy," pointing out that some very basic labor standards are being eroded by all the zazzy disruption. This could be another interesting aspect of the party platform to watch.
3. Fracking Skepticism
In the previous party platform, Democrats celebrated their support for an "all-of-the-above energy policy." But support for "clean coal" (which is not a thing) and "cheap, abundant natural gas," probably represented some red flags to environmental activists. Here is another ripe area for conflict between the Sanders and Clinton camps.
As ABC News' Maryalice Parks reported in April, Sanders has lately been adding some anti-fracking riffs to his standard stump speech, going so far as to propose a nation-wide ban on the practice: "If we are serious about combating climate change, we need to put an end to fracking not only in New York and Vermont, but all over this country.” This is in contrast to Clinton, who promised to put limits on this method of natural gas extraction during the campaign season, but nevertheless has a history of "support[ing] the technology as a potential method for reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil." It's a safe bet that McKibben will be aligned with Sanders on this.
Another important reason why this issue is close to Sanders' heart is that fracking has a disproportionate impact on the poor as well. As Abre' Conner, an attorney with the Kern County Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment told In These Times' Hannah Guzik, “When we look at where the fracking wells are being located,when we look at the health impacts across the state of California and really across the country, we see the same types of issues and the same types of disparities that we’ve seen with education and voting rights.”
As has been repeatedly noted during the primary season, support for Clinton in the black community has a sharp generational break, with older African-Americans backing the former Secretary of State while younger members of that cohort more readily aligning with Sanders. This is understandable, considering the major economic themes that each candidate has advanced.
Clinton's approach to mitigating the underlying income inequality of the African-American community would be to "break barriers" -- that is to say, diversify the elite class of professionals and allow more entrance points to people who have been traditionally excluded. Sanders, by contrast, would seek to level the income playing field by providing free college tuition and expanding access to affordable health care. Additionally, the two candidates have fallen out repeatedly over matters that weigh heavily in the minds of younger African-Americans, such as mass incarceration and police brutality.
As Vox's Dara Lind notes, the appointment of West to the platform committee could disrupt the Democratic Party's traditional approach to African-American voters. West has been a critic of the way that Democrats keep the African-American voter bloc in what he sees as a perpetual state of "electoral capture," wherein these voters are caught between the GOP, which strenuously alienates them, and the Democratic Party, which doesn't need to do much to remain the more attractive option. To Lind's reckoning, West would likely push for concrete promises, focused on the youth and the economy they're set to inherit.
5. The Citizens United/ Wall Street Connection
This is, of course, the issue that animated Sanders' involvement in the race from the beginning -- the corrupt nexus between loose and anti-democratic campaign finance laws and the massive amount of influence that big Wall Street banks and private corporations are able to bulk-buy on Capitol Hill.
The 2012 Democratic Party platform is, in general, critical of much of this as well. But it hasn't matched the zeal of Sanders. "Our opponents have applauded the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United and welcomed the new flow of special interest money with open arms," say the authors of the 2012 platform document, in the only instance in which "Citizens United" is mentioned by name. "In stark contrast," they continue, "we believe we must take immediate action to curb the influence of lobbyists and special interests on our political institutions." One might note that you can hardly describe the effort to curb this corruption that followed as "immediate action."
Sanders' committee appointees will inevitably ask for some more muscular language in the platform document. Heck, they'll most likely seek to make the platform document as hotly condemnatory as Sanders has been on the stump.
"We believe that we will have the representation on the platform drafting committee to create a Democratic platform that reflects the views of millions of our supporters who want the party to address the needs of working families in this country and not just Wall Street, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry and other powerful special interests,” Sanders said when he greeted the news of the DNC's concession to him. You can expect this to be the lodestar of his appointee's overall efforts.
Whether or not the platform document will be a watershed moment in the Democratic Party's election year, or fade from memory soon after the convention ends, is an open question. In general, it's not a binding document. It doesn't force Clinton, or any Democrat, really, to radically alter their positions, their campaign strategy, or their policy goals.
But Slate's Jim Newell, who predicted that this concession would come, says that this arrangement will be of great importance because it will be the venue where "Hillary and Bernie will make peace." Newell reckons that Clinton might very readily give in to carving the $15 minimum wage into the platform's planks, as well as a promise to undo Citizens United specifically and to reduce the influence of corporate money more broadly. He also notes that the positions of Sanders and Clinton on expanding Medicare are close enough to reasonably forge a compromise.
But it won't always be that easy. Per Newell:
On other issues it’s difficult to see how they’d reconcile their differences. One expects that Sanders would push hard for a plank to break up the big banks. That’s just a policy with which Clinton disagrees. Clinton technically does not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but no one actually believes her on that, and she—and other Democratic leaders—would flinch at any platform plank explicitly opposing all trade agreements negotiated by President Obama. Clinton does not support a blanket ban on fracking; Sanders does. How does that get written up? And how willing is Clinton to change language on something as tense as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict?
In short, granting Sanders the right to put surrogates on the platform committee may be a concession that knits the two candidates together in common cause or the invitation to a deeper crisis of disunity. Ironically, it will probably only make news if the result of this attempt at peacemaking is a complete failure.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.