Before this primary season, the Democratic Party’s national platform had not been contested since 1988, when Jesse Jackson offered amendments on military policy, health care, and education, and introduced rules to diversify the party. The 1984 DNC witnessed four hours of platform discussion, which was nothing compared to the 17 hours of heated debate in 1980 over Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy’s fundamental split over unemployment and inflation.
Bill Clinton’s “third way” platform in 1992 marked a rightward sharp turn from the Democrats’ New Deal agenda of tax and spend, social safety nets, and full employment, toward one of small government, personal responsibility, and market-driven growth and investment. Since then, Democratic platforms have gone unchallenged, and the convention itself has functioned as a spectacular coronation. Barney Frank said as much when he branded the platform (in an interview with Slate) the “Miss Congeniality” of the convention process. Frank worked on the 2012 document, but the process was so boring, he intimated, that he couldn’t recall what was in it.
But this year, Bernie Sanders broke that consensus by reviving the New Deal of FDR Democrats. Hillary Clinton, of course, went on to win the majority of delegates. But heading into Philadelphia, she still needs to win over a significant portion of Sanders’s base supporters. Sanders was clear early on that his campaign aimed to fortify a grassroots movement, not himself as a candidate. He identified the platform as a way to register the Democratic Party’s commitment to a progressive agenda—a kind of peace treaty between the DNC and the political revolution, but also an historical marker of dissent from the party’s neoliberal agenda.
I served as the Vermont representative to the platform committee at its two-day meeting in Orlando this past weekend, along with 186 other representatives from around the country. The committee included 25 members named by the DNC; the remaining seats were divided between Clinton and Sanders supporters, with the Clinton campaign appointing the majority. We were charged with amending the already drafted platform with input from around the country. Since more than 200 amendments were submitted, the campaigns worked in back rooms to negotiate some amendments into noncontroversial “manager’s amendments.” To be frank, the experience was part NBA final, part Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy. The tedium of the rules of order and minor amendments was broken up with grandstanding on contentious issues and elaborate presentation of “unity amendments” before C-Span’s public eye and a fired-up gallery.
Among the unity amendments was a Sanders-Clinton compromise on education that included free public higher education for families with income of up to $125,000 a year. Having campaigned on free higher ed as a counterpart to universal health care, I was ambivalent. On the one hand, the $125,000 cutoff meant that some 83 percent of American families would get free tuition. On the other hand, it tainted Sanders’s elegant College for All with means-testing. In the end, the negotiated language made no mention of the cap, so I was pleased to stand with AFT President Randi Weingarten to present the amendment: “Every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to college.”