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These days, it is hard to watch people who know better pretend that the “fight” for the Democratic Party platform matters. This is a strategy that plays better as electotainment than as a path to improving policy for the benefit of the American people.
Using the case of universal health care as an example, there is almost no better demonstration of how party platforms are statements, more show than anything. From the 1940’s until 1996, the Democratic Party Platform called for universal health care. Despite this plank, all Congressional efforts since Truman have been incremental; for example Medicare, Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
In 1996, supporters of universal health care led by the Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) were outraged by the removal of the universal health care plank from the Democratic Party platform. PNHP leaders held a vigil outside of the 1996 Convention in Chicago that lasted more than 80 hours. The party did not want the vigil to happen and tried to locate it at a distance from the convention center with no access to the convention delegates. The ACLU successfully sued in Federal Court and the ruling gave protesters access to the Democratic delegates in order to urge them to reaffirm their commitment to universal coverage. While PNHP won the access to delegates, it still lost the platform fight.
In 2004, Dennis Kucinich tried to add single payer health care to the party platform. As a Presidential candidate, he described that effort as hopeless, saying “Washington right now is controlled by the insurance interests and by the pharmaceutical companies. I went to our Democratic platform committee with a proposal for universal single-payer health care. And it was quickly shot down because it offended some of the contributors to our party. We must be ready to take up this challenge of bringing health care to all the American people.”1
In 2009, we saw the truth of the Kucinich statement play out when even a proposed Public Option was not included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, the ACA does allow states to develop a state-based program in 2017. Senator Sanders was instrumental in this provision of the ACA.
Better than a symbolic platform plank, Sanders should negotiate with Hillary Clinton that if she is the candidate and elected, she will facilitate the conversion of at least two states, urban and rural, as a single payer pilot program. The ability to do this already exists under the ACA and various other existing statutory Health and Human Services (USDHHS) waiver and demonstration programs. State-based single payer systems can begin without new legislation and without flipping the House and/or Senate to D control.
While not perfect, and not national, the demonstration programs will work. Over the years Vermont, New Mexico, Minnesota, Alaska and other states have studied single payer and some have even come close. Federal flexibility and incentives can do a lot more towards demonstrating single payer universal health care than a plank in a party platform.
Just as Canada initially implemented its single payer system one province at a time, the US might follow this same path. The early-adopting provinces led by Saskatchewan in 1947, were able to demonstrate better access and health outcomes for lower cost. It was these facts that led to the adoption of the national health care system of Canada twenty years later. It took 20 years.
The Sanders camp should identify which of their top issues need to be implemented and stop focusing on the platform. One idea is a Joint Commission of the Department of Justice and Treasury Department that opens new investigations of drug-money-laundering banks (HSBC), illegal offshoring of money, the still ongoing housing crisis and the failure to hold banks seriously accountable. Let the Commission and Clinton show that no bank CEO is too big to jail when crimes are committed.
The platform process begins at the county level, moves up to state conventions, and finally up to the national platform committee. The committee meetings are off camera and prior to the televised part of the convention. Taking a stand around a stronger platform is irrelevant. Negotiating some essential agreements with the candidate and then conducting a joint press conference to confirm the agreement seems much more significant.
The agreements strategy has Sanders making a strong speech on the 3 Agreements at the convention with Clinton affirming her commitment to them in her acceptance speech. One might be the single payer strategy described, but of course if Senator Sanders likes this strategy, he will pick his own top three.