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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

An old cowboy aphorism offers this advice: “Speak the truth. But ride a fast horse.”

I relived this truism last weekend in Orlando, Florida, where I spent two hot, muggy days wrangling over policy issues as one of the members of the Democratic Party’s national platform committee. Depending on the moment and the issue, the experience was both invigorating and infuriating, with refreshing outbreaks of broad and bold democratic vision, interspersed with too many rigid, Tammany Hall tactics used to dictate corporate-friendly policies. Bernie Sanders’ 40-percent minority of platform members (of which I was one) managed to “Bern” the platform with more than two dozen big and very important amendments. As a result, instead of the same old business-as-usual blah-blah of party platforms, Democrats and their nominee, Hillary Clinton, are now on public record in support of the most progressive policy agenda in decades.

More about those specific policies in a moment, but first, let’s get on that horse.

The worst development at the Orlando meeting was the Clinton campaign’s acquiescence to the wet dream of global corporate powers: The Trans-Pacific Partnership. The platform’s draft language on this horrendous TPP trade scam actually seemed to endorse it! So Sanders’ forces went all out to replace such a pusillanimous surrender with an amendment to flat-out kill TPP.

I sponsored the Sanders alternative, dubbing it “a form of political Viagra to stiffen the spine of our party.” Our amendment prompted panicky parliamentary manipulations by Clintonites to doctor their language so it would be a bit less wimpy — and also to block my amendment from even being considered. But Sanders’ savvy policy staff outflanked them, so we forced them to debate and vote on our proposal — in view of C-SPAN’s national TV audience.

Of course, with their controlling percentage of committee members (plus strict orders from their campaign’s command center that all Clinton members must vote “no”), we lost the vote 104-71.

Nonetheless, against all odds, we advanced the progressive cause by forcing the corporate interests into public view, getting four out of every 10 members to vote for killing TPP, and energizing our base to carry this hot issue directly to grassroots voters this fall and beyond. Sometimes, progress comes from a stubborn determination to stand on principle.

Sam Rayburn, a longtime speaker of the U.S. House who hailed from my home district in Texas, once declared: “Every now and then a politician ought to do something just because it’s right.”

As a member of the Democratic Party’s platform committee, I saw many examples of that adage at work in the committee’s recent meeting to hammer out an agenda to take to the people in this year’s elections. While there were plenty of disagreements and a lot of free-floating passion ripping through the hall where center-clinging Clintonites and populist Bernie-istas tried to find common ground — there was a remarkable lack of the sort of sour, personal animosity that usually gets in the way of group progress. A myriad of policies were adopted (or rejected) that I don’t like, but — hello — consider just a few of the major progressive breakthroughs that came out of the Orlando confab:

  • The creation of a nationwide jobs initiative that will hire millions of our people to rebuild and expand America’s crumbling infrastructure.
  • Increasing the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
  • Breaking up too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks.
  • Making public colleges tuition-free for working class families.
  • Expanding Social Security.
  • Making it harder for CEOs to block workers from joining unions.
  • Reestablishing postal banks in our public post offices to give low-income families affordable banking and an alternative to predatory lenders.
  • Encouraging new power plants to use renewable energies rather than shale gas from BigOil’s destructive fracking wells.
  • Expanding community health centers to reach 25 million more uninsured families, requiring Medicare to negotiate with BigPharma to lower our drug prices, and encouraging states to provide universal health care.
  • Decriminalizing marijuana, eliminating for-profit prisons and detention centers, and abolishing the death penalty.
  • Eliminating SuperPacs, moving to public financing of elections, providing automatic voter registration, and making election day a national holiday.

Of course, party platforms are not actual laws and programs, but statements of principles and intent. They are important as blueprints for organizing grassroots support and as specific makers for holding elected officials accountable. Making it all happen is up to us, for progressive change always has to be pushed from the bottom up — so let’s get moving.

 

Photo: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders holds up his notes while speaking about his attempts to influence the Democratic party’s platform during a speech in Albany, New York, U.S., June 24, 2016.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.