The Democratic Platform: The Good and the Bad

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The Nation

The Democratic Platform: The Good and the Bad

Last night, the Democratic Party released the platform that will presumably be approved at tonight’s convention. For the most part, it’s an unsurprising document that reprises many of the political and policy themes pushed by the party over the past several years, and won’t shock anyone who has followed the Obama presidency and the last three years in Congress. But there are still a handful of promising aspirations listed—and a few disheartening planks and omissions as well.

Here’s a quick look at what’s encouraging and disappointing. Again, this critique is in the context of what we understand to be Democratic Party politics. One could certainly imagine a far more progressive platform. (The Nation did, here: “A People’s Platform for the Democratic Party.”) This platform isn’t that, and I won’t belabor that point. I also won’t waste time lauding well-known positions like unequivocal support for Roe vs. Wade.

The Good

A constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The Republican National Convention sucked up a lot of media oxygen last week, so many people missed an important development in the campaign finance battles: during a Reddit session, President Obama proposed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The White House, for the first time, was endorsing a massive grassroots movement already underway to undo the highly destructive Supreme Court decision, and it turns out Obama was also previewing the Democratic platform. It reads: “We support campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment if necessary.”

Exempting the safety net from deficit reduction. There are a few encouraging things about the platform when it comes to deficit reduction, which will be a major issue very soon after the election as Congress must deal with the fiscal cliff. The first is that the platform counts the $2 trillion in spending cuts already signed into law during debt ceiling negotiations as part of an effort to get $4 trillion in deficit reduction—an accurate but not universally agreed upon metric. (Many deficit hawks argue for $4 trillion more in reductions). Encouragingly, the section on deficit reduction then talks about ending the Bush tax rates for top earners, closing corporate loopholes, and enacting the Buffet Rule—but does not include reductions in Medicare and Social Security. Given that Democrats seemed prepared to cut these programs during the debt ceiling negotiations, this is a heartening omission from the deficit reduction section of the platform.

Gay marriage. We’ve already known for months the platform would include this, but it’s worth noting again: for the first time, a major party platform explicitly endorses same-sex marriage. “We support the right of all families to have equal respect, responsibilities, and protections under the law,” the Democratic platform states. “We support marriage equality and support the movement to secure equal treatment under law for same-sex couples.”

Voting rights. Amidst a slew of aggressive voter suppression laws by Republicans in several different states, the Democratic platform contains some strong language fighting back on the right to vote: “ We believe the right to vote and to have your vote counted is an essential American freedom, and we oppose laws that place unnecessary restrictions on those seeking to exercise that freedom…. Democrats know that voter identification laws can disproportionately burden young voters, people of color, low-income families, people with disabilities, and the elderly, and we refuse to allow the use of political pretexts to disenfranchise American citizens.”

Omits support for Jerusalem as capital of Israel. The 2008 Democratic platform advocated the controversial and inflammatory position that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel.” That is still Mitt Romney’s position, but the 2012 platform has excised that section completely, much to the chagrin of Israel hawks. (The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has already labeled it “the most radically unsupportive statement of policy on Israel by any major party since the founding of the state of Israel.”)

Minimum wage. We’ve covered recent legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage: a coalition of progressive lawmakers, backed by Ralph Nader, have proposed a bill to immediately raise the minimum wage to $10 (roughly what it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation) and then link it to the consumer price index one year after that. Representative George Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin have a less progressive, but still valuable, bill as well: it would raise the minimum wage to $9.80 over three years, and then tie it to inflation. The platform endorses the spirit of both bills, though the specifics of neither: “We will raise the minimum wage, and index it to inflation,” it reads.

Assault weapons ban. The platform vaguely references recent mass shootings, saying “we understand the terrible consequences of gun violence,” and then calls for renewing the assault-weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole: “We can focus on effective enforcement of existing laws, especially strengthening our background check system, and we can work together to enact commonsense improvements – like reinstating the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole – so that guns do not fall into the hands of those irresponsible, law-breaking few.” An important caveat, however, is that Obama ran on banning assault weapons in 2008, and then mentioned it only once in the ensuing three-and-a-half years in a speech to the National Urban League—and White House press secretary Jay Carney quickly said after the speech that the president wasn’t really calling for any new laws.

Reiterates support for cap-and-trade. Congressional Democrats and the White House may have abandoned cap-and-trade in recent years, but at least the platform (somewhat obliquely) affirms support for it going forward. “Democrats will continue pursuing efforts to combat climate change at home as well, because reducing our emissions domestically – through regulation and market solutions – is necessary to continue being an international leader on this issue. We understand that global climate change may disproportionately affect the poor, and we are committed to environmental justice.”

The Bad

Lowering the corporate tax rate. The platform states: “We are also committed to reforming the corporate tax code to lower tax rates for companies in the United States.” It advocates closing loopholes, and is probably meant to support President Obama’s supposed revenue-neutral reduction of the corporate tax rate announced earlier this year. But this is a disappointing approach—it takes all the money gained from closing massive loopholes that allow numerous corporations to pay little or no taxes, and dumps the revenue gained into lowering the overall tax rate for corporations. This bypasses a major opportunity to raise money for public investments, safety net programs, or deficit reduction. Moreover, as Citizens for Tax Justice notes, Obama’s plan only actually specifies about one-quarter of the loopholes and exemptions that should end, and is decidedly vague about the rest. Given the arcane nature of the debate over tax code exemptions, which would likely be conducted mainly out of public view, along with the proven power of corporations to lobby members of Congress, it’s quite possible that in the end Obama’s plan would lower the corporate tax rate without ending enough exemptions to pay for it.

Housing section. The entire housing section is essentially horrendous, containing highly misleading claims (“finely crafted bullshit,” as David Dayen puts it), and omitting several policy promises that should be common sense. For one, the platform makes no reference whatsoever to principal reduction, a hugely important policy that the White House has at least claims to support—though it won’t follow through by appointing a replacement to FHFA chief Ed DeMarco. Next, it says that “President Obama took swift action to stabilize a housing market in crisis, helping five million families restructure their loans to help them stay in their homes, making it easier for families to refinance their mortgage and save hundreds of dollars a month.” Dayen has a great breakdown of why this is wildly misleading—it claims to have helped people that likely have not actually been helped, or for whom help is not yet guaranteed. It also seems to take credit for things the administration didn’t directly do: homeowners are refinancing because of low interest rates. In the end, HAMP has been such a spectacular failure—“nothing short of abysmal” in the words of the program’s Inspector General—that it’s truly stunning the platform tries to take credit for it. Finally, the platform claims that the administration has “cracked down on fraudulent mortgage lenders and other abuses,” when that’s not the record at all—no high-ranking Wall Street officials or firms have been held responsible for the subprime catastrophe. The administration did create the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities working group, but it has accomplished nothing so far and is distressingly omitted from the platform. A statement of support for the working group might have added some heft to claims of holding Wall Street accountable.

Civil liberties. As Adam Serwer details here, the 2008 Democratic platform contained strong language on indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance, racial profiling in fighting terrorism, Guantanamo Bay, and torture. The 2012 platform is completely silent on several of these issues, or uses wishy-washy language on others to modify previous stances.

No support for card-check. In 2008, the Democratic platform pledged to “fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act,“ also known as the card-check legislation that would make it easier to organize a union. Despite a lot of flowery language on unions in the 2012 platform, there is no pledge to take another bite at the apple on EFCA, which was stymied by Republicans in Congress.

Doesn’t pledge not to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As noted earlier, the platform does not say that the safety net should be part of deficit reduction. That’s good. But nowhere does it affirm support for protecting those programs from cuts or pernicious changes like raising the retirement or eligibility age—things that, in the past, Democrats were prepared to do. Sure, Democrats will “block Republican efforts to subject Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market through privatization,” and “adamantly oppose any efforts to privatize or voucherize Medicare,” but that’s a low bar and wouldn’t preclude cuts or eligibility changes. The platform says “We reject approaches that that cutting benefits is the only answer.” To me, the operative word there is “only.”

Affirms support for the death penalty. The platform only says that it should be administered fairly: “We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary. DNA testing should be used in all appropriate circumstances, defendants should have effective assistance of counsel, and the administration of justice should be fair and impartial.” Of course, the historical prejudicial nature of capital punishment is exactly the problem, and these paeans to DNA testing and better lawyers are unlikely to remedy that.

Signals Support for Keystone XL pipeline? Perhaps I’m just being a nervous nelly. But this line concerned me: “We are expediting the approval process to build out critical oil and gas lines essential to transporting our energy for consumers.” That language is new to the platform—the 2008 document had no reference to approving oil and gas lines, and it strikes me as an odd and very specific addition to talk positively about approval processes for oil pipelines. Perhaps the platform is simply trying to promote the approval of other pipelines, and even the southern portion of Keystone XL, to inoculate against attacks about postponing the entire project. But remember, it hasn’t been killed completely, and the platform doesn’t tout the responsible move of delaying Keystone—only speaks highly of industry-friendly approval processes.

George Zornick

George grew up in Buffalo, NY and holds a B.A. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to joining The Nation, George was Senior Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress.org. He worked as a researcher for Michael Moore's SiCKO and as an Associate Producer on "The Media Project" on the Independent Film Channel.

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