Print Print

I really wanted to like the Democrats’ platform. I believed that Barack Obama could remake the Party as Woodrow Wilson did in 1912 when he united the progressives and the Bourbons. Now I am wondering if we are in for a replay of Dukakis, Clinton, Gore and Kerry–trying to walk down the middle of the road like a drunk trying to prove their sobriety.

Most of all I am beginning to wonder if all this talk about change is really just more of the same-old, same-old that has cost the Democrats the last two elections. Right now Barack Obama is running dead even with John McCain, having lost his early lead. If you read the platform you can understand why.

Of course, Obama will get a chance to put his personal stamp on the campaign with his much-anticipated speech to the convention. Expectations for this speech are so high that it will take a Michael Phelps-like miracle to pull it off. Even more critical is that Obama must have the classic post-convention “bump” if he stands any chance of winning.

If his speech is like the platform, he could be in trouble because as a written document the platform has all the flavor of someone trying to please everyone. Let’s call it the Democratic two-step, for parts of the platform move close to a needed redefinition of the Party only to take two steps back. This is not a platform written by a confident Party, a Party that thought it would walk in the White House because George Bush and the Republicans have made such a mess of things. Instead this platform has all the earmarks of a Party that is afraid to lose.

As I have said so many times I am getting tired of hearing it, the platform and the Obama campaign must focus on principles and values. Change is neither a principle nor a value. It is at best a tactic and at worst empty rhetoric. Every obscure city council candidate who doesn’t know what else to say runs on a platform of change. George W. Bush promised change.

For this reason the most important part of the platform is the preamble because it should lay out in precise language exactly what values will guide the Obama Administration. Check out some of the speeches in the sidebar if you want to know how it is done. Or check this paragraph from the 1908 Democratic Platform:

The Democratic party is the champion of equal rights and opportunities to all; the Republican party is the party of privilege and private monopoly. The Democratic party listens to the voice of the whole people and gauges progress by the prosperity and advancement of the average man; the Republican party is subservient to the comparatively few who are the beneficiaries of governmental favoritism.

The first clue the 2008 preamble is in trouble is that it is too long. Having walked more organizations than I can count through the experience of defining visions and goal setting, I always stressed these statements must be short, to the point and pass the grocery store test: that is if you run into someone in the grocery store you should be able to repeat the vision in your own words.

The 2008 Democratic Platform fails this test miserably. After reading the preamble I could not summarize it if I was being waterboarded. It rambles on for three pages. Had the writers of the 2008 preamble been assigned to write the Declaration of Independence we might still be a British colony, for the entire preamble is longer than the entire Declaration. Imagine trying to post three pages on the nearest lamp post or tree.

Everyone knows the Declaration’s opening paragraphs represent the gold standard. I did not expect the 2008 platform to equal Thomas Jefferson, because no one has ever accomplished that, but I didn’t expect tin either. The lengthy preamble eerily reminds me of John Kerry’s 2004 platform mess that provided a clue to the main weakness of his campaign. I still defy people to tell me what John Kerry ran on and what he stood for. I am worried we may find ourselves asking the same question a year from now.

In outline form a preamble should have three or four sections stating what we believe, why we believe it, what we intend to do with those beliefs, and why those beliefs are needed. Give each of these a paragraph and you have at most 1-2 pages. When you examine the 2008 preamble you find it consists of 16 paragraphs, of which five long paragraphs describe the mess George Bush and the Counterrevolution have created. Unfortunately these paragraphs consist of a laundry list of things we already know rather than zeroing in on the reason for the failures.

That reason is that quite simply the Republicans have a different philosophy of government. Pointing out that difference was the center of Democratic platforms for most of the twentieth century.

Take the 1932 platform, which BTW is only 40 paragraphs. it ends:

And in conclusion, to accomplish these purposes and to recover economic liberty, we pledge the nominees of this convention the best efforts of a great Party whose founder announced the doctrine which guides us now in the hour of our country’s need: equal rights to all; special privilege to none.

Equal rights to all; special privilege to none.” That is a clear statement of values anyone can remember.

The 1948 platform is a bit longer–although you still don’t need to download a 54-page PDF file to read it– but its values are unambiguous:

We chart our future course as we charted our course under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman in the abiding belief that democracy—when dedicated to the service of all and not to a privileged few—proves its superiority over all other forms of government.

In contrast the 2008 platform appears to have value statements scattered all over, some of them ambiguous, some wordy and some seemingly at odds with one another. First there is the verbose and grammatically-mangled (to “get” a good education?”) first paragraph:

We come together at a defining moment in the history of our nation. America is the country that led the 20th Century, built a thriving middle class, defeated fascism and communism, and provided bountiful opportunity to many. We Democrats have a special commitment to this promise of America. We believe that each American, whatever their background or station in life, should have the chance to get a good education, to work at a good job with good wages, to raise and provide for a family, to live in safe surroundings, and to retire with dignity and security. We believe that quality and affordable health care is a basic right. We believe that each succeeding generation should have the opportunity, through hard work, service and sacrifice, to enjoy a brighter future than the last.

Then we find another statement on line 15 of page 2:

Today, we pledge a return to core moral principles like stewardship, service to others, personal responsibility, shared sacrifice and a fair shot for all –values that emanate from the integrity and optimism of our Founders and generations of Americans since.

Finally, there is a third values paragraph at the top of page 3:

Today, America must unite again –to help our most vulnerable residents get back on their feet and to restore the vitality of both urban centers and family farms –because the success of each depends on the success of the other. And America must challenge us again –to serve our country and to meet our responsibilities –whether in our families or local governments; our civic organizations or places of worship. We must act in the knowledge that each of us has a stake in our neighbors’ dreams and struggles, as well as our own, and recognize the dignity in each of us.

The first paragraph is closest to those of 1908, 1932 and 1948. The addition of health care as a separate sentence and the only issue listed as a basic right not only reads badly, but singles out one area when in fact all are important. The final paragraph about succeeding generations could easily have been cut out or incorporated in the other two. Here is one attempt at a rewrite:

At this defining moment we look back upon what the world views as the American Century, during which this nation won two world wars and the Cold War, conquered the Great Depression, put a man on the moon, and provided more prosperity for a larger percentage of its citizens than any nation in history. We Democrats celebrate this promise of America because it was Democrats who made it happen. Like the great Democratic leaders who defined and transformed the twentieth century, we believe that every American, whatever their background or station in life, should have the opportunity to receive a quality education, to work at a meaningful job with good wages, to raise a family whose needs are provided for, to live in safe surroundings, to receive the world’s best health care and to retire with dignity and security, knowing the next generation shall enjoy a brighter future than the last.

Unfortunately the force of this paragraph is diluted by an entirely different set of principles later in the preamble, many of them ambiguous buzzwords–stewardship, service–the tone of which evokes some favorite Republican code words that have been used as far back as the early twentieth century to justify a position that government does not have an obligation to keep the playing field level. Just ask yourself how will stewardship, service, and personal responsibility solve the mortgage crisis.

Finally we come to the third paragraph, which is the worst of them all. It tries to have it both ways in the long-running dispute between more or less government and only succeeds in muddying the issue even more than it already is–which is not easy.

So in the end, take your pick of which Democratic Party you want: a, b or c. Frankly, b and c would not be out of place in a Republican Platform, if only because they are so nebulous. When the Democratic Party puts on its show for the networks pay careful attention to which of these three emerges or if the delegates are unable to make up their minds. By putting their candidate in such a difficult position this platform committee has substantially upped the stakes for his speech.

All this is not helped by John McCain’s recent moves to paint himself as the original maverick and take away what had been Obama’s territory. The strategy is becoming clearer: the McCain campaign will seek to show their candidate is the original change agent. Obama’s choice of Joe Biden as his running mate may shore up the campaign’s foreign policy weaknesses, but instead of distancing himself from Washington, it puts Obama right in the center of it. If McCain, as expected, chooses Mitt Romney as his running mate he will have performed yet another remarkable metamorphosis, turning Barack Obama into the establishment candidate.

Meanwhile if Hillary Clinton continues her lukewarm support and adds to it pouting over the Vice Presidency, it will inflict a deep wound on Obama. I predict Hillary will saddle Bill with sounding the trumpets for Obama while she will continue to provide only token support.

At the center of all this is the platform. Reading it I am not sure any more what a Democrat is. If I am not sure what a Democrat is then I–and many others–are not sure they are Democrats.

Having said that, I still prefer the Democrats’ mushiness to the alternative of having the rapier-like verbal preciseness of another Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court slowly slicing the Constitution to ribbons.

Print Print