Democratic Platform Shows Bernie Sanders Helped Push the Party to the Left — But Not Hillary Clinton

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Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Spar At Democratic Debate In Brooklyn
"I tried." Photo: Justin Sullivan

Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign will finally come to an end today when he endorses Hillary Clinton at a joint rally in New Hampshire, weeks after it became clear that he would not be the party’s nominee. Many were perplexed or even angered by the Vermont senator’s failure to fall in line behind Clinton, but on Sunday, Sanders essentially confirmed why he’s been withholding his endorsement. While he may have been hoping that the FBI would recommend that Clinton be hauled away in handcuffs, his more realistic goal was to use his remaining clout to change the Democratic Party platform.

We have made enormous strides,” Sanders said in a statement after the party voted on platform amendments at a meeting in Orlando. “Thanks to the millions of people across the country who got involved in the political process — many for the first time — we now have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party.”

That’s true; the platform — which still needs to be ratified at the convention — calls for Wall Street reform, repealing the ban on using federal funds for abortions, and having the Justice Department “investigate all questionable or suspicious police-involved shootings.” But that doesn’t mean that the party’s presidential nominee supports all of the progressive principals articulated in the 15,000-word document. The meetings on Friday and Saturday dragged on for hours, and NBC News reports that while representatives for Clinton and Sanders were trying to find common ground, at times things got heated. Points of disagreement included:

The Minimum Wage: In a big win for Sanders, the platform adopts his call for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and indexing it to inflation. Clinton wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $12, but supports local campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15 in cities such as Los Angeles and New York.

The Death Penalty: Democrats are set to become the first major U.S. political party to call for the abolition of capital punishment. Sanders is against the death penalty in all cases, but Clinton has taken a more complicated stance. She has said she thinks it is “too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way,” but believes it should still be an option “for particularly heinous crimes in the federal system, like terrorism.”

Marijuana Legalization: The platform says “we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from its list as a Class 1 Federal Controlled Substance, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization.” The plank, which marks the first time marijuana has made an appearance in the platform, was opposed by many Clinton delegates and won by just one vote. Clinton supports medical marijuana, but is opposed to legalizing pot across the board. Sanders backed state-by-state legalization efforts.

Climate Change: Sanders pushed for a carbon tax, and his supporters managed to add the provision “carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases should be priced.” However, while the senator supports a national ban on fracking, the platform only says that there should be more regulation of fracking, and it should not happen in areas where there is local opposition. Clinton does not support putting a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions. “Her plan is clearly articulated on her website,” her Energy Policy Adviser Trevor Houser told the AP. “It’s not her plan.”

Israel-Palestinian Conflict: Clinton backers kept language criticizing Israel, calling for “an end to occupation and illegal settlements,” out of the platform. Instead, it calls for working toward a “two-state solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict” that guarantees Israel’s security “and provides the Palestinians with independence, sovereignty, and dignity.”

TPP: In Sanders’s biggest loss, his delegates failed to insert language specifically rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The amendment acknowledges that there is disagreement on the issue, saying trade deals “must protect workers and the environment and not undermine access to critically needed prescription drugs,” and that should be applied “to all trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Clinton says she opposes the trade deal (though she once called it the “gold standard”), but her backers pushed for using softer language rather than openly opposing President Obama.

Despite the Sanders camp’s losses, his policy director, Warren Gunnels, said the campaign achieved “at least 80 percent” of its goals over the weekend. “I think if you read the platform right now, you will understand that the political revolution is alive and kicking,” he said.

It’s hard to say how much of that should be attributed to Sanders himself, and what represents the party’s general move to the left in the past few years. As the Washington Post’s David Weigel explains, the Sanders campaign “absorbed existing progressive movements and organizations,” such as the anti-fracking campaign, and the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage campaign. Plus, the Democratic Party lost its conservative wing during the Obama years:

That meant that the remaining progressives faced no serious ideological resistance. Where in 1988 there were legions of conservative white Southern Democrats resisting Jackson’s changes, in 2016 many of the South’s delegates are African American progressives. Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America and a delegate for Hillary Clinton, remarked that the old “Democrats for Life” seemed to have vanished, putting up no fight when the party condemned the antiabortion Hyde and Helms amendments for the first time in any platform.

Regardless, claiming victory in the fight over the Democratic platform allows Sanders to save face before endorsing Clinton, and makes his supporters feel heard. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that while hashing out the party’s official stance is usually seen as a pointless pre-convention exercise (see the GOP’s stand against porn), this time there may actually be a practical benefit:

That Bernie Sanders has emphasized the platform — that Hillary Clinton has followed suit, with involvement from Team Obama — is a strong sign that it matters. And while it might not shape a Clinton White House — whose movement, like all administrations’, is shaped by contingency and opportunity as much as by ideology and strategy — it provides a hook for activists and a basis for further demands. Liberal interests and other groups can measure the Democratic Party’s actions against its stated principles and demand accountability when they fall short. And political innovators within Democratic politics — people like Bernie Sanders, for instance — can use the platform as a starting point for pushing the boundaries of the status quo.