Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize

After his mostly predictable loss last Tuesday, in Pennsylvania (32 net loss of delegates, with 12% spread), Delaware (3 and 20%), Maryland (29 and 30%), Connecticut (3 and 5%), with Sanders winning only Rhode Island (+2 and 12%), the Sanders campaign issued a statement which said it “is going to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia … to fight for a progressive party platform.”   Sanders followed up saying he would seek “the most progressive platform in the history of this country.”

Excuse me, but does anyone know what was “the most progressive platform in the history of this country” and whether it mattered? Did anyone who has voted for or contributed money to Bernie Sanders ask him to change the Democratic Party Platform? Or is this just more evidence of the perverse incompetence of “[t]he Democratic apparatchiks who run Bernie’s campaign”? Jane Sanders typically makes more sense than the well-paid Sanders campaign advisors. After running a losing campaign that they should be winning, do these apparatchiks really believe that millennials can be diverted to a project of rewriting the Democratic Party Platform as their consolation prize for a failed political revolution intended to change the corrupt political process? Don’t they support Sanders mainly for the very reason that they appropriately do not trust Clinton or her Party to do what they say?

A google search does not find much interest in the subject of the Democratic Party Platform except from, of course, the Democratic Party. The Democratic Platform is a piece of advertising copy. For anyone to express concern about the contents of the Platform would be to suggest that they think the Platform has some relevance to what Democrats actually do. Sanders, of all people, should know better.

The Platform has at best only a coincidental relationship to what Democrats do. The Democratic Party, with Obama as Exhibit A, is the party that lies to its supporters about what it will do, while Republicans tend to lie about what the effects will be of what they will do. Therefore, like almost any statement that Obama makes, a Democratic platform would be a better guide to what Democrats will not do. If Democrats like Obama can betray campaign promises with impunity, for example about changing “business as usual in Washington,” what additional value can a Platform have, which no actual politician even promises to support? If there is no relief against a politician that betrays personally-made campaign promises, where is a voter supposed to lodge a complaint when incumbent Democrats vote the opposite of what their party platform says that stand for?

There is no “Platform Court” where a case can be brought for breach of Platform. It is an entirely useless document for purposes of making political change in this systemically corrupt era. Maybe in some bygone era a platform had some significance. Now it is a symbol of the incompetence of the Sanders campaign that it would waste political capital on changing the Democratic Platform. Sanders even admits that platform promises are “not automatically going to translate into policy. I understand that.” Not automatically, nor is there any other way that a Democratic platform will translate into policy. Then why does Sanders skirt so close to such a “sheepdog” moment that cynics predicted he would, by arguing that people should care about rewriting the damned Democratic Party platform?

The actual concerns one does see among progressives are those who want Sanders to change the democratic process, people musing about his or advocating a separate third party run. Supporters are raising issues about or charging election fraud on the evidence of consistent exit poll disparities in New York and elsewhere, as well as evidence of other “screwups” in a broken New York election system which is also the most closed primary. Sanders’ four losses on April 26 were also closed primaries. His win was a mostly open primary in Rhode Island which reaffirmed his enduring strong support from independents, who decide general elections. Had the other states been open elections, he would have likely won them as well by similar margins– somewhat dampening the enthusiasm for Clinton’s closed primary “riggedtories.”

There is opposition to closed primaries, and more generally a privatized and undemocratic election run-off process in both parties. Sanders himself did finally grumble about the New York process, including exclusion of “some three million New Yorkers unable to vote” because they were independents in a closed primary process. But when asked the follow up question whether, after New York, he was “planning to change anything about your campaign,” a campaign which has sadly failed to mount an effective attack on such closed primaries, and other corrupt primary processes, Sanders said “no.” He is sticking with his “message,” his strategy-free menu of policy issues.

By failing to complain about the New York closed primary system before he lost four more closed primaries he no doubt should have otherwise won, he missed an opportunity to focus on the need for rule changes. He needs to advocate DNC rules changes that can and should discount the delegate strength of states that insist on excluding voters from the primary process. Instead Sanders maintained the false bravado that “we look forward to doing very well” in those four closed primaries ahead.   Sanders did subsequently tell the Washington Post that “the convention and the Democratic National Committee can change the rules and can create a scenario that makes it clear that we want open primaries in 50 states in this country.” This is not quite the same as saying that Sanders will lead a fight at the convention to make a rule change that will deny legitimacy to closed primary results now and in future elections.

Most supporters understand that “it is the process itself that is the problem .… the shared monopoly that corporate oligarchs control with their phony two-party system.” What could have a solid impact on that process is reform of the Party rules that now allow:

1) conflicts of interest by superdelegates and party committee members,

2) unlimited money in politics to support primary candidates,

3) delegations from states with corrupt and broken elections to count equally with those selected by fairly run elections or caucuses,

4) closed primaries, which exclude independent voters and punish insurgent candidates, to count equally with open primaries,

5) rotten borough red states, which will predictably have no bearing on a Democratic Party electoral college victory, to count equally with the core blue state coalition required to win.

These are the kind of process problems that keeps the Democratic Party a plutocratic party from which a Hillary Clinton can emerge a victor although she has large net negative ratings with the electorate compared to Sanders positive ratings. The duopoly can be broken up by either changing the rules of at least one party so as to be democratic. Or in theory, according to some people, it could be done by the perennially enticing prospect of a third party strategy which has never succeeded in all of American history. (The myth that the Republican Party was a third party when it won in 1860 is belied by the fact that the Republican Party was already a solid second party in its first contested national election in 1856, in which the third party Know-Nothings got less than a tenth of the Republican Party’s electoral votes).

In any event, editing the advertising copy of Party Platforms, one way or the other, can have no impact on such processes that keep the party under the control of plutocrats. Changes in the process requires change of the party rules which has nothing to do with the Party Platform. The Platform is intended to offer up policy wish lists that Sanders himself has clearly stated can never be achieved until the corrupt plutocratic process is changed, change that should start with the Democratic Party primary nomination rules.

Here is what the Democratic Platform says about Sanders’ priority issue:

“We support campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment if necessary. We support legislation to close loopholes and require greater disclosure of campaign spending…. We support requiring groups trying to influence elections to reveal their donors so the public will know who’s funding the political ads it sees. President Obama and the Democrats are fighting to reduce the influence of money in politics, and holding Congress to higher conflict-of-interest standards.”

It would take a separate article to deconstruct the Democratic scam of supporting “campaign finance reform, by constitutional amendment.” Being neither necessary nor sufficient to the task, advocacy of an amendment serves as an neverending diversion from effective strategy. Just since the time this 2012 platform language was adopted, a majority of Democrats, and Obama, as could be predicted, have done just the opposite of each other of these “promises.”

When Obama and a majority of Senate Democrats had a chance to vote against legislation that clearly legalized more money in politics, they instead voted for it. When Obama had an opportunity at the stroke of his pen “to close loopholes and require greater disclosure of campaign spending” he adamantly refused to require disclosure of independent expenditures by corporate government contractors. He also refused to appoint SEC, FEC and IRS regulators who would enforce such disclosure requirements on these corporations and others so that “the public will know who’s funding the political ads it sees.” When Obama got tired of being lobbied to exercise his regulatory powers, he instead signed legislation stripping himself of all those powers in 2015.

As one humorist wrote, referring to Sanders’ “campaign contributions in “bundles” of $20 … [Clinton’s] lead among superdelegates (who says money doesn’t buy happiness?) is 502 to 38. Case closed, unless some of them want to be paid off again, this time with $20 bills.” But Sanders has yet to call for applying those “higher conflict-of-interest standards” promised by the Democratic Party Platform to prohibit such payoffs within – perish the thought – the Democratic Party itself, especially its committees and its super delegates. That would be too easy a solution for Democrats compared with their constitutional amendment scam.

Since he never expected to come this far, Sanders seems to think it is his campaign that gets credit for his doing unexpectedly well. Sanders seems to equate the power of the self-organizing millennials who accept his message and provide his margin of victory with that of his own campaign staff, which consistently makes fatal blunders. Sanders thus wrongly thinks his campaign rather than millennials, is the reason “we have come a long way.”   It is his campaign organization, originally designed on the premise he could not win “in a million years,” that should receive the blame if “we” fail to make it all the way.

The campaign’s incompetence has started to attract some polite attention. Nathan Riley “a veteran of numerous New York State Campaigns” ) “cast doubt over the campaign’s feel good advertising strategy that … didn’t provide information on why the Bern was making serious policy proposals. Issue oriented ads might have had a greater impact.” It was the campaign’s responsibility to provide the evidence that there was detailed content behind the slogans Sanders used in his speeches and debates. Charges by Clinton and others that the slogans were empty of content were not adequately answered by the campaign. Polls showed from the beginning that people feel good about Sanders once they get to know him. That was never the problem. But his campaign chose to design ads for Clinton’s problem, that people do not feel good about her, instead of Sanders’ problem that people thought he might be making empty promises as Clinton’s people alleged.

Riley also pointed out that a “missing link in the campaign is a cadre of experts explaining the commonsense of the Senator’s proposals” Riley targets both generally the lack of expert economists with the Sanders’ campaign, and specifically Riley’s own issue that: “Belatedly Sanders started talking about the drug war, but his understanding of the issue seems primitive. He shows little understanding of the links to crime and gun control.” Again this shows a deficient campaign. I can confirm Riley’s point. I was similarly unable to locate in the campaign any expertise on Sanders’ primary issue of money in politics and how to solve the plutocracy problem.

Implying that the Sanders campaign already has dropped the ball, Riley exhorts progressives, “we shouldn’t drop the ball,” suggesting that progressives need to go forward independent of the campaign that he criticizes.

This writer has also criticized the campaign (not Sanders himself – he is understandably busy doing what he does best to also fill the role of senior campaign strategist). Good campaign strategy requires a campaign capable of creating strategy and the Sanders campaign has never demonstrated that capacity. Among other things, it 1) does not have a strategy to attract black women voters, 2) does not have a strategy to get the progressive judge on the court needed to overthrow the money is speech cases – the key goal of the campaign, 3) does not have a capacity to communicate a depth of knowledge to convince voters that Sanders’ proposals are realistic, 4) does not have a campaign to reform the DNC rules which could ultimately be the decisive factor in the nominations, and 5) has failed to show up with effective organizing on the ground.

The two leading issues on which the campaign’s strategy is missing are:

1) Advising President Obama to make a recess appointment of a progressive black woman Supreme Court Justice, rather than nominating a conventional plutocrat who would undermine the best strategy to achieve the key reform of Sanders’ revolution, changing the Supreme Court’s bizarre interpretation that money is speech.

2) Instead of waiting until he loses to start trying to reform the Democratic Party’s undemocratic primary process, if ever, the campaign needed to start fighting for reform of the rules from the beginning, making such change an original purpose of the campaign so it would not sound like sour grapes at the end of the campaign, or even hindsight that proves a lack of foresight.

The most glaring defect of the campaign, one that contributed to nearly every primary defeat, is its failure to cut through superficial identity politics to connect with blacks, particularly black women. Sanders needed to act effectively to earn their support, not just talk. Scalia’s death provided a timely opportunity for such action. Sanders could have used his Senatorial power to advise and consent to publicly caution against or flatly reject Obama’s ultimate nomination of a plutocrat to the vacant Supreme Court seat. Instead Sanders endorsed Obama’s white male plutocrat. Sanders could have, but never did, insist that this seat should be occupied by a progressive black woman who he designated. Instead we now have on the $20 bill the paper symbolism of a Harriet Tubman, whose power is safely frozen in the past, but not the reality of a comparably radical black woman on the Supreme Court whose power could help solve today’s crises of democracy – money in politics and the broken criminal justice system – both precipitated by the Supreme Court.

Similarly wasting the political energy of a generation that his campaign has focused by channeling it into wholly symbolic change on paper of a Democratic Party Platform – which hardly anyone even reads or remembers after a convention — would constitute as great a strategic blunder by Sanders’ campaign as those listed above that it has already made. Sanders’ political capital needs to be invested in democratizing the Democratic Party nomination apparatus. Politico reports that, even at this late date “there are no ongoing, direct conversations between the two campaigns about … rules changes.” The price of avoiding a walkout at the convention should be that it deliver an irrevocable set of rules under which the people’s favorite candidate, the one who performs best against any Republican, would win the nomination, if not this year, at least in 2020 when the remainder of the millennials will have reached voting age.

This would be one demand that can be fulfilled as the price of support for the Democratic nominee prior to the election.   The other significant demand that can be met prior to the election is for Obama to make that recess appointment of a progressive black woman to the Supreme Court in August. This is the least that could be expected in return for Sanders asking millennials to tactically support one Wall Street plutocrat rather than another in 2016 when for good reason, like YahNe Ndgo recited, they “don’t trust what she says and … don’t like what she’s done.”

Sanders’ sheepdog proposal to shift focus to the platform before California has even voted suggests Sanders was more of a figurehead than a leader of this revolution. By laying off campaign workers instead of his overpaid senior strategist who is continuing his series of strategic mistakes by advising retreat rather than attack, and diverting people toward changing the Democratic Party platform, Sanders demonstrates his essential but ultimately limited role.  As Bernie has always said, it is not about him. The people themselves, including their elected delegates at the convention, will have to take the revolution from here.


Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.