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Will Democrats end up with a platform or a plank?

As the rise of Bernie Sanders shows us, the party’s ideological divide is more than just a temporary fluke

OPINION — Who speaks for the Democratic Party these days? No, really. I’m confused.

Is it Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer with their center-left congressional policy proposals? Or Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC with their “Medicare for All” and Green New Deal? 

Do the center-leftists still represent a majority of the Democratic Party, if a shrinking one, or have the young, extreme left-wingers who have given Sanders momentum in the early presidential primary contests taken over?   

Last April, when asked on “60 Minutes” about President Donald Trump’s charge that Democrats have become the party of socialism, Pelosi said: “This is an ongoing theme of the Republicans. However, I do reject socialism as an economic system. If people have that view, that’s their view.  That is not the view of the Democratic Party.” 

But is her party listening anymore, with House and Senate Democratic candidates hobbled with a thin legislative record and a bungled impeachment to run on? Even more problematic, are she and other senior party leaders so out of touch with their base, they don’t realize the train may have left the station without them? 

During the Feb. 7 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, most of the candidates expressed some concern over Sanders’ embrace of socialism. But they couldn’t seem to find their backbones when moderator George Stephanopoulos asked them, “Is anyone else on the stage concerned about having a democratic socialist at the top of the Democratic ticket?”

With the exception of Amy Klobuchar, the group awkwardly looked at each other, unable or unwilling to take on those in their party infatuated with what is a demonstrably failed economic and political governing theory. One can only conclude that most of this cycle’s Democratic presidential candidates would be quite comfortable with a socialist leading their party, even one who is promising radical change on almost everything, from health care to climate to the role of government in society. 

But Pelosi has told us that is “not the view of the Democratic Party.” So which is it? What exactly does the Democratic Party stand for and, as I’ve said before, who gets to decide?

Lasting consequences

Obviously, the presidential primary process is supposed to answer these and other questions. But with the increasing possibility of a brokered convention, Milwaukee may end up more than just a contest for the 2020 nomination. For the first time in a long time, the party platform may be just as big a battle, and for good reason. Unlike most political platforms, it may end up defining the Democratic Party for this generation and the next.

If the primaries have shown us anything to date it is that the ideological divide within the Democratic Party, embodied by Pelosi’s strained relationship with AOC, is far from a temporary fluke. The party’s shift to the left is real and should not be underestimated.

In 2006, when Democrats won back the House, exit polls showed 51 percent of their voters self-identified as moderate and 38 percent as liberal. In 2018, when Pelosi and crew retook the House, the numbers were a mirror opposite:  51 percent of Democratic voters called themselves liberal and 38 percent said they were moderate.  

That shift is apparent within the House caucus today and in Sanders’ early strength. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the party is on board with Bernie. The 30 House Democrats running for reelection in districts Trump won know they will have a tough time defending a socialist platform marked by trillion-dollar, government-centric policy proposals.

Unless Sanders comes to the convention clearly having won the nomination outright, there’s no guarantee that the platform process will deliver the kind of socialist agenda that Sanders and his supporters want. DNC Chairman Tom Perez recently released a list of the first members of the Rules, Credentials and Platform committees, which reads like a laundry list of party insiders. A quick review shows plenty of familiar names, from Clinton and Obama loyalists to K Street lobbyists to think tank inhabitants and inside-the-Beltway power brokers, the very people progressives have come to despise.

Daniel Boguslaw, writing in The New Republic, said of these initial committee members: “Their mandate will include managing the convention’s rulemaking procedures, resolving disputes over delegate credentialing, and codifying the Democratic Party platform. Taken as a whole, these handlers wield tremendous power in shaping both the official party line and the logistics of selecting the Democratic presidential nominee, to say nothing of the way they will influence the course charted by a potential Democratic president.”

He’s right. Although as candidates win delegates, more members will be added to the committees in proportion, it’s hard to underestimate the power these initial appointees will wield in the next few weeks and months while the nominee is in limbo. What happens in the Rules and Credentials committees now and later could have a major impact on a contested convention. 

But their influence may also shape a party platform that may not be compatible with a Sanders nomination. Imagine if Sanders comes into Milwaukee leading with a plurality or a slim majority of the delegates. There is no guarantee he would have a majority of the Platform Committee.

Platform to the rescue?

So what happens if the Democratic platform favors keeping Obamacare and Sanders is the nominee running on Medicare for All?  Or the platform doesn’t promise to forgive student loan debt or get behind the Green New Deal, as AOC has proposed?

Normally, party platforms don’t really affect elections. But if an avowed socialist is heading the ticket, a more centrist platform may be the only lifeboat available for down-ballot Democrats running in places where moderate views and independent voters matter. Socialism may be the rage on New York’s Upper West Side or in the Hollywood Hills, but it’s important to remember that Democrats who call themselves liberals only represented about 18 percent of the total electorate in 2016.  

I wonder if the candidates on that New Hampshire stage, who were afraid to call out socialism for what it is, understand that? I suspect the 30 endangered House Democrats in swing districts and Senate candidates in swing states understand it all too well. So do some of the Democrats’ best strategists.

In a “CBS This Morning” interview Monday, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Sanders “an ideological risk policy-wise. I don’t think there are 70 million waiting socialists to be woken, who don’t know they are socialists yet.”

He went on to warn that without a plan to reach moderate voters at the top of the ticket, “It’s survival. That means you are not only risking the presidency, [but] the Senate and the House, the governorships and all the statehouses for redistricting.”

Emanuel gets the dilemma that the Sanders candidacy poses for his party. Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic establishment may still control the party’s levers of power to run the convention and craft a platform. But this time, the progressive wing isn’t likely to tolerate a convention or a platform controlled by the people they see not as compatriots but as the problem. 

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.

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