Why the Democrats’ Platform Actually Matters This Year

It’s how Hillary and Bernie will make peace.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, California on May 18, 2016.
Bernie Sanders addresses a rally in San Jose, California, on Wednesday.

Josh Edelson/Getty Images

In 2012, Barney Frank, then in his last year in Congress, helped write the Democratic national platform. At least he thinks he did.

“I don’t remember what was in it,” says Frank, who was a member of the platform committee at that year’s Democratic National Convention, “and it wasn’t a very interesting tour of duty.” Describing the platform as the “Miss Congeniality of the convention process,” the former Massachusetts representative says everything besides the nomination of the president and the vice president is just this “Model U.N. kind of stuff.”

“Maybe you are a particularly savvy person,” he adds, “but I can’t remember much that’s been in any platform.”

Four years later, the Democratic primary is slogging toward a conclusion in which the platform will play a significantly larger role—Miss Swimsuit, let’s say. At the moment, Hillary Clinton, a couple of weeks from officially clinching the party nomination, is struggling to unite Democrats around her candidacy. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, shows no indication that he is excited to throw his support her way once he’s been defeated. He is going to want meaningful concessions about the way the Democratic Party does business, what it believes in, and for whom it acts.

The Clinton campaign and other Democratic Party leaders have two ways of dealing with this. One is to reprimand Sanders for the recent unpleasantness and freeze him out by shooting down everything he asks for. Mathematically, given the numbers the Clinton camp possesses at the convention (by virtue of her winning a majority of delegates), they could go down this path. It would just be extremely stupid politics, since Sanders has millions of hardened supporters whom Clinton will need in November, and more proximately, he could trigger a convention floor fight if he felt compelled. The other path is to deal with Sanders in a way that acknowledges his contributions to the intraparty debate without undermining Clinton’s earned status atop it.

The composition of the Democratic Party platform is setting up to be a central vehicle for such dealing. Why the platform? It’s just meaningful enough to signal the general beliefs of a party and the direction in which it’s moving but not powerful enough to bind a nominee to all of its planks. Rather than look at ceding platform planks to Sanders as a burden, the Clinton campaign could see it as a positive means of bridging party divisions ahead of the autumn grind. And though Sanders wouldn’t be the nominee, it would be a victory of sorts to insert planks supporting, say, single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage into Clinton’s platform.

Party platforms are faintly ridiculous documents, as Frank points out. There’s no doubt that their weight has diminished in recent decades as the conventions themselves have turned from negotiating sessions into preplanned coronations for the presumptive presidential nominees. “Politics became more personality-driven than party-driven,” explains Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic consultant. Trippi was a Ted Kennedy staffer in 1980, and he remembers trying to get an appeal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the platform as a means of coaxing Carter’s female delegates into their camp. “We can all try to go back and date when that started happening, in the ’70s or the ’80s,” Trippi says, “but by the 2000s … it’s the persona of the candidate, not the party platform, that matters.” The decline in importance of the platform, then, has “led to more leeway on how tough the nominee is going to be about what gets in the platform.”

The platform hasn’t entirely lost its luster. It can consecrate important shifts within a coalition or positions around which a previously split coalition has unified. Think, most recently, of the inclusion of support for same-sex marriage in the 2012 Democratic platform. Or the Democratic platform’s move toward full acceptance of abortion rights in the 1970s versus the Republican Party’s first inclusion, in 1980, of a plank in “support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” Together, the platforms effectively codified the existence of pro-life and pro-choice parties in American politics.

The Republican Party seems to fully embrace the still meaningful but not binding status of the modern platform as an opportunity to take its id for a walk and appease factional neuroses. The 2012 Republican platform, for example, contained provisions warning against creeping Sharia and bravely standing against imagined United Nations encroachment on American sovereignty. Meanwhile, the 2012 Democratic platform that Frank can’t remember more or less just listed President Obama’s accomplishments and incremental plans for Wall Street regulation, taxes, job creation, and fighting terrorism in the gauzy language of a press release. This time around, why not follow Republicans’ lead and fling all of the primary’s passions onto the page?

The platform is “there for the campaigns and the real activists within the party to look to as a means of capping off a hard-fought race,” says John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, “and to talk a little bit more about what the future of the party may look like.”

Since Sanders wants leave his imprint on the future of the party, it’s perfectly understandable that he would have his eyes on shaping the platform. He and his surrogates have recently been dropping hints that platform changes will be central to Clinton earning his full-throated support. In an April interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Sanders said he would consider “to what degree [Clinton] will adopt many of the ideas that I think are extremely popular and I think very sensible.” The New York Times has reported that Sanders would be “aiming to lock in strong planks on issues like a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, breaking up Wall Street banks and banning natural gas ‘fracking.’ ”

The makeup of the platform committee (and rules committee) has been one of several sources of friction between the Sanders campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Each of the three standing committees—platform, rules, and credentials—comprises 187 members. Of those, 162 are determined at state conventions and reflect voters’ candidate preferences—i.e., they will tilt slightly in Clinton’s favor. The remaining 25 members of each committee were nominated by the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz in January and later ratified by the DNC’s executive committee.

Wasserman Schultz’s selections to the three committees infuriated the Sanders campaign—or, at least, gave the Sanders campaign another excuse to express its fury at Wasserman Schultz, a none-too-popular figure among Sanders supporters with whom the feeling seems mutual. In a letter to the DNC earlier this month, the campaign alleged that it had recommended to Wasserman Schultz 40 potential nominees for these committees, of which she nominated only three. On top of that, she nominated Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy as co-chair of the platform committee and Frank as co-chair of the rules committee—people whom Sanders, pretty accurately, described as “aggressive attack surrogates” for the Clinton campaign. Sanders urged Wasserman Schultz, who also will select the 15 members of the panel that writes the platform, to choose seven members from each campaign and one chairman jointly picked by each. “If the process is set up to produce an unfair, one-sided result,” Sanders warned, “we are prepared to mobilize our delegates to force as many votes as necessary to amend the platform and rules on the floor of the convention.”

The Washington Post reported Friday that the DNC is prepared to meet Sanders halfway on committee seatings. But the composition of the platform committee or its document’s 15 writers is a sideshow to where the real action will take place: between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, in private, ahead of time. Clinton wants to avoid an off-putting floor mess, so the two campaigns will likely work out a deal on the most contentious issues ahead of time and then instruct all the relevant committees and panels to write it all down.

Though the Clinton campaign has to draw the line somewhere to assert her power over the party, one recent report—backed up by my own conversations—suggests the Clinton campaign is willing to be flexible with the platform to bring Sanders on board.

“I expect that there’ll be some conciliation” on the platform, says Frank, Sanders’ nemesis. “I don’t think anybody wants to give any of Sanders’ people any reason to feel offended.”

Platform concessions will be especially important since Frank can’t think of what there is to offer on the rules committee, which he co-chairs. Aside from his platform demands, Sanders has been making noises about eliminating or trimming the number of superdelegates—the body of free-agent delegates through whom, coincidentally, Sanders’ only path to the nomination runs—and reducing the number of closed primaries and caucuses. Frank doesn’t have much of a problem with these suggestions, but they’re “not decided at the convention. Those issues are decided subsequently by the DNC.” History bears this out. Democratic nominating rules are hardly immutable. But typically they’re changed between presidential contests via DNC-empaneled commissions, such as the McGovern-Fraser Commission after 1968 or the Hunt Commission after 1980.

If the platform is the big game at the convention, then Trippi agrees that it wouldn’t make much sense for the Clinton campaign to resist Sanders’ demands if they’re the central obstacle to Sanders’ support. “I don’t mean it in a disparaging way, but the platform gets locked in a vault somewhere” after it’s passed. “You get a day of, ‘Yeah, we won that plank to get big money out of politics’ or whatever—whatever it is, I’m not belittling what they’re doing—I’m just saying I can’t imagine [the Clinton campaign] fighting that hard.”

“Unless it’s something just untenable,” he adds.

What would be untenable for Clinton? Where would she draw the line? Her campaign isn’t going to say just yet. But if you look at some of the issues Sanders has put forth, we can put them into roughly two camps: items on which they occupy the same ideological space but where Sanders is to her left (more negotiable), and items on which they have conflicting views (less negotiable).

Clinton already half-supports a $15 minimum wage, so that should be an easy one to grant—and it would be a meaningful recognition, too, of the Fight for 15 activists’ efforts. Though she solicits and accepts large donations, she justifies that on the grounds of not unilaterally disarming, and at least on paper she supports overturning Citizens United. A strong plank against corporate money in politics should be workable, however hypocritical it might appear in the present. Though Clinton has leveled some opportunistic attacks against Sanders’ Medicare-for-all health care plan, her support for a public option or a Medicare buy-in should provide her the opening to support Medicare-for-all as an end goal in the platform.

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?

“There’s a chance that the Clinton campaign and supporters within the DNC will fight bitterly over the platform. … That would be a political mistake,” Hudak, of Brookings, says. “If she and her campaign look at it as a set of opportunities and not something worth losing their minds over, then they’re going to be in a better political position.”

“At the same time,” he continues, “if Sanders comes to the table with outrageous suggestions or demands and effectively wants to rewrite the platform from top to bottom in the image of his ideas, he’ll also be overplaying his hand, and there’ll be real pushback from a party that he has had a casual relationship with over the years.”

If Clinton tries to freeze Sanders out of the platform, or if Sanders tries to hijack it entirely, the platform could go from the party’s best vehicle for reconciliation to the catalyst of a nasty, nationally televised floor fight that hampers the party’s ability to win in November. What’s a party platform worth? It’s worth what the camps responsible for writing it deem it to be. And this year, for the first time in some decades, that may be a lot.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.