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How To Make A Political Platform Progressive

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

How Bernie Sanders Made A Meaningless Procedural Document Matter

Bernie Sanders and his supporters cheered a slew of progressive proposed amendments to the Democratic Party platform, but were ultimately dealt a setback in Orlando over the weekend when Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s representatives on the party’s platform committee led the way in voting down amendments that would have supported a nationwide ban on fracking, criticism of Israel’s apartheid regime against Palestinians, the establishment of a single payer healthcare system, and indefinitely delaying a vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The setbacks came in the final meeting between representatives on the platform committee and only days before Sanders’ expected endorsement of Clinton Tuesday in a joint rally in New Hampshire, where he defeated her by a 22-point margin in the Democratic primary in February.

The Sanders campaign has been in close contact with the Clinton campaign in recent weeks, as the two sides have tried to find common ground ahead of the Democratic National Convention on July 25. The Democratic counterparts first met in mid-June, a tense meeting during which Clinton reportedly asked what it would take to land an endorsement from the Vermont Senator, who dominated Clinton with the youth vote.

To that end, Sanders’ camp has been able to force Clinton to earn his endorsement by pushing the presumptive nominee to the left on issues such as $15 minimum wage and health care: The language on the minimum wage — complete with Sanders’ very own “starvation wage” campaign terminology — was included in the final platform draft, and Clinton has included language supporting a “public option” for healthcare in recent statements to the press — mirroring some elements of Sanders’ medicare-for-all proposal. Sanders also was able to secure commitments from Clinton to support free in-state college tuition for families earning $125,000 or less annually.

Sanders has praised Clinton for the speedy progress in recent weeks, noting that “the Clinton campaign and our campaign are coming closer and closer together.” But Sanders has avoided an all-out endorsement, to the frustration of most in his adopted party.

In addition to the stalemates on fracking and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Clinton’s representatives on the platform committee voted down multiple initiatives relating to Social Security: an elimination of the cap on Social Security taxes as well as a new cost-of-living index for Social Security benefits. Sanders also has criticized the Democratic Party for its embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal he has railed against and for which Clinton has switched her stance after initially calling it the “gold standard in trade agreements.”

Sanders has been much more vociferous in his opposition to TPP, slamming it as a corpotist attack on American jobs and regulatory measures and a potential source of human rights violations around the world. Sanders recently said as much in an op-ed for the New York Times, calling upon Democrats to “defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

While Clinton has said she opposes TPP, her campaign and many of her representatives on the platform committee have a history of sticking close to the legislative priorities of President Obama, who has promoted TPP repeatedly as a partnership that would give the U.S. an edge over China and would strengthen America’s relationships with countries around the world.

Amid frustration from the left on the committee’s refusal to pass Sanders’ reforms — particularly on the issue of TPP — some Sanders supporters observing the process chanted “Shame!” and “Are you Democrats?”

Nevertheless, the party platform, usually a symbolic document, has hewed left perhaps more than Sanders expected and is probably enough for him to proceed with his planned endorsement of Clinton Tuesday. In fact, he could use the platform to hold Clinton accountable to his base — as a checklist of issues on which Clinton has pledged to reach out to progressives in the party.

It is the most progressive Democratic platform ever, thanks to Sanders directing his supporters’ attention to the drafting process. It will be up to those supporters to hold Clinton and other Democrats to the promises that document makes.


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

What Elizabeth Warren’s Trans-Pacific Partnership Critique Means For The Democratic Party

Elizabeth Warren can change her party. And she knows it.

As the media speculates on the possibility of a Clinton-Warren ticket, the progressive Massachusetts senator is calling on the Democratic platform committee to take an explicit stand against the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move that puts Democrats at a crossroads ahead of Friday’s platform meeting in Orlando.

The controversial, Obama-backed trade deal, known as “TPP” for short, looks to open up trade among the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries, as close as Canada and as far as Vietnam.

And so far, the Democrats’ platform committee has tip toed carefully around the pact, which has proponents and opponents on both sides of the aisle. Current language in the platform says that “there are a diversity of views in the party.”

Warren is looking to change that. In a video released on Thursday for the progressive activist group CREDO, she slammed the TPP as a “lousy” deal that would let “giant corporations rig the rules.”

Warren is primarily opposed to a key provision in the agreement known as the investor state dispute settlement, or ISDS, which would allow foreign companies to contest American law through an independent arbitration system — and reap millions if they win. Congress cannot pass an amended version of TPP without ISDS.

Contrary to the purported goal of protecting American investment abroad, the TPP would create “open season on laws that make people safer but that cut into corporate profits,” Warren says in Thursday’s video.

Although Clinton, Sanders, and Trump (yes, that’s right — Trump) have all expressed their opposition to the trade deal, the platform committee rejected an amendment to explicitly oppose TPP in the party platform.

Robert Borosage, of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future, argued that the anti-TPP amendment failed to pass because it lacked support from committee delegates chosen by Clinton and the DNC. Indeed, Clinton supported TPP as secretary of state and only changed her position on the pact once she entered the presidential race, according to PolitiFact.

While Warren has made her objections to the deal well-known — she gave at least two speeches urging Congress to oppose the deal earlier this spring — her latest criticism comes at a complex moment in the 2016 race.

For some commentators, criticism coming from an increasingly well-known progressive stalwart means death in no uncertain terms for one of two things: either a Clinton-Warren ticket, or the TPP itself.

By picking Warren in the midst of her crusade against the trade pact, it would be difficult for Clinton — and her many Democratic supporters — to support the carefully measured criticism of TPP as expressed in the current platform. (Warren, a noted firebrand, does not seem likely to back down from her position anytime soon.)

Conversely, if Clinton wants the Democratic Party to maintain its middle-of-the-road stance on the pact, a Warren VP choice would be… complicated. A pro-TPP coalition made up of Obama and members of Congress will be more likely to weather the current swell in anti-trade sentiment without rebuke from the Democrats’ presidential ticket — or, for that matter, the party platform.

Many have already raised doubts about Warren, a vocal critic of Wall Street, as a VP pick for Clinton. Her video message may solidify the rationale for keeping the populist out of the presidential race, though it’s Clinton’s prerogative.

As for Obama and other TPP backers, meanwhile, the forecast is grim. Regardless of who Clinton chooses as her running mate, Warren’s strong words — and growing presence — can only hurt efforts to pass a trade effort years in the making.


Photo: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren advocates against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a video from progressive activist group CREDO. Screenshot via YouTube

Why Democrats Are Fighting Each Other Over The Trans-Pacific Partnership

Skepticism surrounding the controversial Trans Pacific Partnership has built up on both sides of the American political spectrum, and indeed around the world, but key differences of opinion are emerging on the left just weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention.

Representatives of Hillary Clinton and DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on the party’s platform committee — which was thrust center stage by the Sanders campaign — led the fight last Friday against incorporating language in the DNC platform specifically opposing the TPP. In a 10-5 vote, split predictably along primary campaign lines, the Sanders camp suffered a setback in their effort to fulfill his pledge to stop the deal, which he has described as one that hurts workers and ultimately benefits the wealthy.

Clinton formerly supported TPP but officially came out against it in October, following pressure from the left wing of the party. She appointed a slew of experienced policy wonks, such as CAP President Neera Tanden and former EPA administrator and White House advisor Carol Browner, to the platform committee.

The decision by Clinton’s appointees to steer clear of a full-throated opposition to TPP could be a matter of simple loyalty to President Obama, who has lauded the partnership as one that is necessary for American business to succeed in a global economy and compete with China. A number of Clinton’s appointees served in the Obama administration, and the presumptive nominee has defended the president’s legacy and her role in creating it.

Paul Booth, a leader in the AFSCME public employee union and a Clinton representative on the committee, said he would prefer the platform plank on TPP to use “general, in-principle language” — providing cover, perhaps, for a greater acceptance of trade in a Clinton administration. During last week’s meeting, Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents the Sanders campaign, said, “I’d love to work with Mr. Booth, but I’m not picking up any spirit of cooperation from him.”

Amid a generational shift on attitudes toward trade and globalization, it’s worth examining Sanders’ reasons for opposing the TPP. According to the Vermont senator, the partnership “would make matters worse by providing special benefits to firms that offshore jobs and by reducing the risks associated with operating in low-cost countries.” He also slammed TPP for exploiting weak labor laws by promoting trade in countries like Vietnam, which he said has been cited by the Department of Labor, Human Rights Watch, and others for its poor human rights record. Sanders also says the TPP would compromise food safety and limit access to generic pharmaceuticals —  the result of a negotiation process that he says was largely carried out in secret.

On Tuesday, Sanders published an op-ed column in the New York Times comparing Americans’ anxiety over trade to British voters’ feelings about the European Union. He demanded that Democrats “wake up” and oppose a deal that does not serve the American working class. “We need to fundamentally reject our ‘free trade’ policies and move to fair trade,” he wrote. “We must defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Meanwhile, President Obama insists that the TPP boasts the “strongest commitments on labor and the environment of any trade agreement in history.” He has broadly praised the agreement’s dedication to leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses. The underlying message in most of Obama’s remarks about TPP, however, is that he wants to ensure the United States stays ahead of China in the global market.

“The prescription of withdrawing from trade deals and focusing solely on your local market, that’s the wrong medicine,” Obama said Wednesday, responding to questions about another presidential candidate who doubts the value of global trade: Donald Trump.

On the surface, the rift within the Democratic Party is summed up by the conflict between Sanders’ progressive, non-establishment appointees to the platform committee, and Clinton’s more moderate, establishment appointees.

But reality is a bit more complicated: Clinton has distanced herself from the TPP, while her supporters at the highest levels of government nearly all support it (with a notable exception, Elizabeth Warren, who came out strongly against the deal a year ago).

Clinton will have to carefully tiptoe around the issue because she is counting on President Obama to make an economic argument for her candidacy in the months ahead. That may make for uncomfortable moments when Trump denounces trade deals while Clinton and Obama stand together on the campaign trail.

That tension, which has flared in Trump’s anti-trade wake, began months ago. Clinton called the TPP the “gold standard of trade” and had positive things to say about it in her book, Hard Choices. Yet, even after her about-face on the issue, her allies are maintaining flexibility on the deal while Democrats seek to lure Sanders supporters to Clinton’s side.

Even now, many American voters know very little about TPP, and those who know about the deal are split: a Morning Consult survey conducted last March revealed that 29 percent opposed it while 26 percent supported it; 45 percent said they did not have an opinion or did not know how to respond.

In the coming weeks and months, Sanders and his supporters will aim to raise enough awareness about the partnership’s downside — and indeed, the downside of global trade deals generally. If the tides of opinion keep turning, Obama may have to face some tough choices of his own.


Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R) meets with the leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries in Beijing November 10, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque