The Democratic Platform Fight Shows It’s Still Obama’s Party
Bernie Sanders supporters have pushed for progressive priorities in the platform, but the Barack Obama wing of the Democratic establishment is still in the driver’s seat.
Few processes are given more importance, yet are as arcane and opaque, as the writing of the Democratic Party platform. Ostensibly the policy agenda of the next Democratic president (and the party as a whole), the platform is the result of hours of intense debate and negotiation between sometimes contentious factions of competing political interests. It is also, more often than not, written by the winners.
This year, those winners aren’t only former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment — but the Obama wing of that establishment.
President Barack Obama installed his labor secretary, Tom Perez, as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair in February 2017. A close look at Perez’s nominees to the 2020 platform committees suggests the party will adhere to Obama’s incrementalist vision of politics, one that stands in stark contrast to the bold push for change advocated by runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his supporters.
Now, with the Sanders-Biden unity task forces having wrapped up and issued their recommendations, what happens from here is in their hands. One Wall Street advisory firm is already declaring a victory for corporate America, calling the 110-page document “a very successful effort by Biden and his team to control the narrative and policy direction, while making just enough concessions to the progressive wing to avoid an open rift in the party.”
Yet it’s no guarantee even these half-measures will make it into the platform. That will depend on the men and women chosen by Perez to shape the final document.
Who’s at the head
Many loyal democratic voters may be pleased that Obama’s vision will shape the platform. He is, after all, the party’s most beloved political figure.
But Obama’s actual policy agenda was often at odds with the stated values and priorities of his own supporters. Obama championed the corporate-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, and sources involved in the drafting process say it was his direct appeal to Sanders that helped ensure the absence of an anti-TPP plank — which Sanders agreed to for the sake of party unity.
As president, Obama expanded President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” pushed for an “all of the above” energy policy that did little to prevent climate change, deported record numbers of people, and spent years trying to cut Medicare and Social Security, an ambition that Sanders himself was instrumental in thwarting. Moreover, according to longtime Democratic Party insider and Obama transition official Reed Hundt, it was Obama and his team’s aversion to robust government action in the early days of the 2008 recession — for fear of being labeled “socialist” by the GOP — that ultimately weakened the U.S. economic recovery and helped elect President Donald Trump.
“The former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum,” the Washington Post’s David Swerdlick wrote of Obama in 2019. “To the dismay of many on the Left, and to the continuing disbelief of many on the Right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach of presidents who came before him.”
Per DNC rules, Tom Perez, as party chair, has the fortune to appoint the co-chairs of the Rules, Credentials and Platform committees. Perez’s selections for the two co-chairs of the Platform Committee don’t show signs of receptivity to Sanders’ agenda. Both are fellow former Obama officials. The one likely to wield the most power is Denis McDonough, Obama’s final chief of staff.
Having cut his teeth as a foreign policy adviser for former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle — now a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies and other corporate interests — McDonough sits safely in the narrow band of liberal orthodoxy in Washington, particularly on matters of national security. As Daschle’s aide, McDonough took the lead in drafting the war authorization Bush used to invade Iraq. He is a Russia hawk and believes law enforcement should be able to access a person’s encrypted messages, but had backed Obama’s 2008 campaign-era call to defy Washington’s warmongers and speak with U.S. adversaries like Iran and Cuba.
Perhaps most important is McDonough’s close relationship with Obama. The former president has described McDonough, who helped set up his Senate office upon his arrival in Washington and served as his top foreign policy adviser during his 2008 campaign, as “one of my closest friends.”
“Denis has played a key role in every major national security decision of my presidency,” Obama said in 2013. Other officials have described McDonough as something akin to an extension of the former president. He is “the keeper of the president’s flame,” according to Cheryl Mills, a staffer for President Bill Clinton. Obama trusted McDonough “more than anyone else in the White House,” according to Clinton ally and Obama transition head John Podesta, in 2013.
In August 2019, McDonough defended Obama against criticism from several Democratic candidates on his healthcare and immigration record, arguing that “attacking former President Obama’s record … doesn’t make any sense, politically or substantively.” Perez and McDonough are unlikely to get much pushback from the other Platform Committee co-chair, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of legendary activist César Chávez. Chávez Rodríguez served as Obama’s deputy director of public engagement, which in practice meant being dispatched to speak with disillusioned Latino and immigrant rights activists during the 2012 election (and beyond), defending Obama’s woeful record on immigration.
“My grandfather helped me to understand that change isn’t immediate,” Chávez Rodríguez said in 2014, defending Obama’s glacial progress on immigration and refusal to take executive action on the matter. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It does take a lot of time and sacrifice. It takes consistent, sustained organizing and pressure.”
Chávez Rodríguez is also a former state director and senior adviser for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). She is now working for the Biden campaign.
In many ways, the appointment of McDonough and Chávez Rodríguez caps off a multi-year effort by Obama to limit Sanders’ influence over the party and ensure Obama’s direction for the party prevails. As one official told Harper’s editor Andrew Cockburn, Obama recruited Perez in 2017 to run for DNC chair to “stop the Sanders wing of the party from taking over.” Perez ran against then-Rep. Keith Ellison (now Minnesota attorney general), a Sanders ally who had received overwhelming party support, including from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other congressional Democratic leaders. Obama personally worked the phones to turn votes away from Ellison and toward Perez.
Ahead of the 2020 primaries, Obama privately threatened to step in and speak out if Sanders appeared poised to run away with the nomination. He also made several well-publicized — if obliquely critical—comments about Sanders’ candidacy and political vision; one even became a debate question suggesting Sanders should step aside because he was old and male. Obama helped convince Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., to suspend his presidential campaign before Super Tuesday to consolidate the centrist vote against Sanders. Obama also reportedly pressured Sanders to suspend his campaign.
For a fuller picture of what Obama’s Democratic Party looks like, look beyond the chairs and at the four vice chairs and 25 voting members of the Platform Committee that Perez named January 25.
Thirteen are former Obama administration and campaign officials. Another, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, was singled out by Obama during his final interview in office as the future of the party. Twelve more are Clinton allies (including four that overlap the Obama crowd). Many have expressed open hostility to Sanders. Some are connected to or have received political funding from interests expressly opposed to Sanders’ agenda. Many have business and political fundraising interests that run counter to the Vermont Senator’s anti-corporate vision. Seven work or have worked for the corporate sector, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina executive Danielle Gray and ecommerce executive Meghan Stabler.
In the United States, party platforms are non-binding and have, at times, even been ignored by the candidates themselves, leading many to wonder how much they really matter. And yet, as some have pointed out, platform changes often prefigure important ideological shifts within a party. One study found that, from 1980 to 2004, lawmakers voted in line with their respective platforms on average 82% of the time.
Intense battles over platform language in past decades suggest that, while the Democratic Party establishment may view its platform as symbolic (and convenient to ignore), the platform is far from insignificant — particularly given how it serves as a test of the nominee’s power within their party. Biden, for example, is currently resisting the demands of the party’s progressive and activist base, championed by Sanders.
Healthcare is one point of contention. Biden is steadfastly opposed to Medicare for All, a flagship Sanders policy that has soared in national popularity as millions lose their jobs and insurance during the pandemic.
Another is climate change. Biden put forward a $1.7 trillion climate plan during the primary (to Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan) and has haltingly moved closer to the platforms of green groups like the Sunrise Movement but remains resistant to key elements, including a ban on fracking and a reinstatement of the oil export ban, rescinded by Obama in 2015 after spending 40 years on the books.
The actual writing of the party platform is a multistage process that continues through the party convention. In 2016, according to those involved, much of the platform had been written well before the Drafting Subcommittee met to vote on the details in June in St. Louis. Even as the drafters held hearings around the country in advance of the two-day debate, staffers for the DNC were already writing the platform’s first draft.
“We were the Drafting [Sub]committee, but the draft got done by staff people who put together the rock, which we tried to chip away at,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and one of the members of the 2016 Drafting Subcommittee (and a contributor to In These Times in the 1980s). Zogby’s involvement with the DNC goes back decades; he has been involved in platform fights since 1988.
In 2016, Drafting Subcommittee members like Zogby were picked as part of an agreement between the DNC and Sanders. The DNC selected four of the subcommittee members, Hillary Clinton six and Sanders five, all names he had personally chosen. The names were then approved by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The only Sanders selection who was vetoed was RoseAnn DeMoro, then-executive director of National Nurses United, a union that fervently backed Sanders. DeMoro had a history of needling Clinton but, officially, was rejected on the grounds that labor was already represented on the Platform Committee.
At the same time as the very public wrangling over the platform in St. Louis, those involved say, a number of changes to the draft were hammered out in backroom negotiations between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The two sides met and drew up a list of overlapping campaign promises, such as a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada (which made it into the platform).
Other changes got their hearing at the next stage, at the full Platform Committee’s July preconvention meeting in Orlando. The 187 voting members were divided up in proportion to the number of delegates each campaign won in the primary. Here, the Sanders wing succeeded in inserting planks calling to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage to $15, break up the big banks and expand Social Security. After the (sometimes raucous) debate in Orlando, the platform’s final stop was the convention itself — the last chance for any platform changes.
But the essence of the final platform was created outside this formal process, by the DNC staffers who wrote the first draft and through those private talks between Sanders and Clinton officials.
“The [first] draft … is ultimately the document you work from,” Zogby says. “Once the draft is there, it’s very difficult to make changes to that draft.”
The 2020 process will follow a similar, equally convoluted path. The unity task forces, created by the two candidates in the wake of Sanders’ campaign suspension, were just one stop in this route, meant to influence the eventual platform while doubling as an attempt to push Biden in a more progressive direction.
This approach has another upshot: preventing a rancorous battle over policy planks at the party convention.
“[Battling] could be embarrassing and they want to avoid that, so they put together these committees outside of the process to try and agree on a program, and they’ll all go in there and both sides will vote for it,” says George Albro, cofounder and downstate co-chair of the Sanders aligned New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). “I think Bernie really wants to foster unity because, ironically, he’s more interested in defeating Trump than the establishment is.”
This push for unity wouldn’t be out of character for Sanders. According to In These Times’ sources, after anti-TPP planks brought by Sanders allies in 2016 were defeated at both St. Louis and Orlando, Sanders had enough delegates to force a vote on the issue in a much more public way at the party convention in Philadelphia. What stopped him was a phone call from Obama, who didn’t want a contentious floor fight at the event.
The Unity Menu
It remains to be seen whether Sanders’ 2020 campaign for party unity, even more intense than in 2016, will win him more favorable treatment from the Democratic establishment. The Unity Task Forces he set up with Biden may have allowed him to set the stage, but even there, Sanders appointees were outnumbered on each task force, three to five.
Even the most promising fell short of expectations. The climate change task force, co-chaired by Green New Deal proponent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), included Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. Yet ultimately, it left out a fracking ban and made no mention of the Green New Deal.
The economy task force was compelling, too, co-chaired by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union. It included Stephanie Kelton, an adviser on Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns and an expert on modern monetary theory, which rejects the current economic orthodoxy that discourages deficit spending. It recommended that Biden explore setting up government savings accounts for children, for instance, but stopped short of a federal jobs guarantee, a sticking point for the Biden team. The recommendations instead call for “jobs programs like those effectively used during the New Deal.”
Tellingly, foreign policy was entirely left out of the purview of the task forces.
With the task forces having made their recommendations, the Drafting Subcommittee is now tasked with hammering out a draft platform. This time around, Sanders did not officially get any nominations to the 15-person committee.
The lineup, announced by Perez in late June, pulled from Obama loyalists. Four held posts in Obama’s administration, three worked on his campaigns, one served as an elector for his 2008 run and two received his coveted endorsement after he left office. Three are Sanders allies — Heather Gautney, former Our Revolution executive director; Josh Orton, former Sanders Senate senior adviser; and Analilia Mejia, political director for the 2020 Sanders campaign. Orton and Mejia also worked for the 2008 Obama campaign.
Obama’s centrist, business-friendly politics are well-represented, too. Four of the members have corporate backgrounds, including Tom Vilsack, who passed through the revolving door from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and Tony Allen, a former Biden speechwriter and former executive at Delaware credit card company MBNA, a top Biden funder that pushed his disastrous bankruptcy bill in 2005.
Perhaps the most important selection is the committee chair. Perez chose Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Though she has won progressive plaudits for undertaking bail reform and improving government transparency, the business-backed Bottoms has also been criticized for harsh treatment of homeless people in Atlanta and for not doing enough to stop gentrification. Married to a Home Depot executive, Bottoms also has a penchant for public-private partnerships. She has been one of Biden’s most loyal backers, endorsing him in 2019 a day after he took fire over his anti-busing past.
“The chair has tremendous power,” says Jay Bellanca, upstate co-chair of NYPAN, who has been on the front lines of efforts to reform the party since 2016. “It determines who can recognize, bring things forward.”
While Sanders allies view 2016 Drafting Subcommittee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) as a fair adjudicator, the person who sits in the position can make a crucial difference — for better or worse. In 1988, Chair James Blanchard, governor of Michigan, was crucial to inserting a provision about respecting the territorial sovereignty of Lebanon, Zogby recalls.
“He said, ‘I’m from Michigan, don’t screw with this. Give me this language on Lebanon,’ ” Zogby says. “And we got it put in.”
The platform’s next gauntlet is the full Platform Committee Meeting. In addition to the 25 members selected by Perez, 162 delegates will be added, apportioned by the number of delegates each candidate receives in the primary contest. Whatever they agree on must then be ratified at the Democratic National Convention itself.
In 2016, Sanders’ allies were pleasantly surprised by their impact on the platform that came out of the committee, including the $15 minimum wage provision. All were products of an intense, sometimes testy process.
Hanging over this year’s negotiations, however, was the question of whether Sanders would have enough delegates to be apportioned the 46 members of the platform committee that are needed to have leverage. It’s likely that even if all of Sanders Platform Committee members agree, they won’t reach the threshold of 46 members needed to bring a minority report to a vote on the convention floor, a potentially embarrassing challenge that could force compromise from the majority in advance, in order to head it off. In 2016, Sanders cleared that threshold easily, giving teeth to his delegates’ demands in committee (and avoiding a fight at the convention).
Assuming Sanders is just short of the 46, his team would need support from Biden platform committee members to reach the threshold number. Had Sanders actively stayed in the post Wisconsin primaries, even while supporting Biden, there would have been enough Sanders delegates elected to reach 46 platform committee members required for minority resolutions.
Because Sanders failed to do so, his movement will have little sway on the 2020 convention committees this year.
Sanders — focused on beating Trump (and no doubt stung by years of spurious accusations that he and his supporters cost Clinton the 2016 election) — seems committed to avoiding not just the rancor of the previous election, but the all-out chaos of the infamous 1972 Democratic Party convention. A much more conciliatory approach seems likely, working closely with Biden and attempting to nip any hint of party disunity in the bud.
Rather than lean on the threat of a contentious floor fight, then, Sanders vested his hopes in the Unity Task Forces. With the release of the draft platform in late July, this approach seems to have yielded dividends, with a number of their final recommendations making it into the finished product. The draft platform incorporates recommendations including expanding Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing loss, ending private prisons, and drastically moving up Biden’s climate targets.
Yet even here, the wins are muted. Much of the recommended language that found its way into the platform was already part of Biden’s platform, including his plans for undoing Trump’s immigration policies, letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, allowing the federal government to pay the cost of continuing lapsed health insurance under COBRA, and ending cash bail and mandatory minimums. While the draft now more directly states the party “support[s] ending the use of private prisons,” Biden had already pledged to make eliminating private prisons a requirement of his federal grant program for crime prevention. Same with the pledge to lower Medicare’s requirement age to 60.
In other areas, the Sanders camp appears to have been completely rolled. The task forces’ less ambitious recommendation to decriminalize marijuana went into the platform, and a plank to legalize it was defeated 105-60. Every one of the planks put forward by Palestinian-American delegates, including one merely calling for supporting an Israel that isn’t an exclusively Jewish state, was left out with most of them not even considered — though the final draft did include language defending the right of Americans to boycott Israel, a significant inclusion. Meanwhile, the already whittled-down language on New Deal-style jobs programs was entirely left out.
But the most glaring, if unsurprising, absence surrounded Sanders’ flagship Medicare for All policy, which receives a scant single mention in the draft platform, with no endorsement. Party delegates also voted down planks to insert such an endorsement into the draft, as well as those calling for expanding Medicare to children and lowering the program’s eligibility age to 55. The platform’s next stop is the August party convention, where hundreds of Sanders delegates are defying the Vermont senator’s push for party unity, and have signed a pledge to vote against the platform if it continues to leave out Medicare for All, a tactic that will likely fail to change the party’s mind — but will make inconvenient headlines for Democrats.
Should Biden ascend to the presidency, the next step for progressives will be ensuring he follows through on the platform’s many promises. This won’t just involve overcoming the predictable Republican obstruction, but putting enough pressure on Biden himself to outweigh the corporate and right-wing influence that have historically cowed him into submission. Ultimately, Obama only moved left on issues like immigration, marriage equality and the Keystone XL pipeline because of years of activist pressure. Conciliation and unity may be the order of the day, but there’s only so far they will go toward achieving progressive priorities.
Janea Wilson, Indigo Oliver and Camille Williams contributed fact-checking.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019-2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.