Platform changes highlight Democrats’ leftward drift

Recently I had the fun of joining with three smart, articulate Republican leaders – John Carlson of 570 KVI, U.S. Senate candidate Chris Vance, and state Rep. Matt Manweller – in a panel discussion about the GOP and its future. We ran some highlights from the evening here, and you can listen to our full discussion here.

Of the many on-point observations made that night, I was intrigued by this from John Carlson, when he was discussing how the two parties have evolved of late:

“The Bill Clinton model of triangulating between the left wing of his party and the Republicans, that’s gone. We heard Hillary Clinton, of all people, running far to the left of her own husband’s legacy. If you want to see what I’m talking about, compare the 1996 Democratic platform, midway through the Bill Clinton administration, with the 2016 draft Democratic platform. They are two different parties.”

The leftward drift of the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the Bernie Sanders phenomenon pulling Hillary Clinton in his direction, is taken as a given this year. But the vast gulf between the party’s proposed 2016 platform and its platform of just 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton was running for re-election, is startling.

Biggest difference is what’s emphasized
Comparing section-by-section, there are certainly similarities between the Democrats’ 1996 and 2016 beliefs. As America’s center-left party, some of its policy provisions have survived the decades. What has changed, vastly, is the face the party is trying to project to voters.

Take, for instance, this line that would be unimaginable from the Democratic Party today:

“We have worked hard over the last four years to rein in big government, slash burdensome regulations, eliminate wasteful programs, and shift problem-solving out of Washington and back to people and communities who understand their situations best.”

Nothing even close to that sentiment is being brought before Democratic delegates this year. The proposed platform’s repeated references to unity and being “stronger together” imply “united together under government programs.” That’s a long way off from “The era of big government is over.”

Democrats in 1996 took the time to praise school uniforms, town curfews, and the war on drugs. They bragged about passing “the toughest Crime Bill in history” and adding 100,000 new police officers around the country, as well as building new prisons. They even talked up “establish[ing] the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes…” This year, the proposed platform calls for abolishing the death penalty.

Immigration platform has to be seen to be believed
Continuing the tough talk, the Democrats’ 1996 plank on immigration hardly seems believable today:

“We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it. For years before Bill Clinton became President, Washington talked tough but failed to act. In 1992, our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant… President Clinton is making our border a place where the law is respected and drugs and illegal immigrants are turned away.”

This coda almost seems included for comic relief: “However, as we work to stop illegal immigration, we call on all Americans to avoid the temptation to use this issue to divide people from each other.” Today it’s part and parcel with the party’s wedge politics strategy.

2016: Less about crime and order, more about bigger government and more free stuff
This year, the Democrats’ platform is all about the economy – sort of. Included in this year’s draft:

  • “Democrats will expand Social Security,” they say, and never increase the retirement age
  • “Democrats believe that the current minimum wage is a starvation wage…We believe that Americans should earn at least $15 an hour…”
  • “Americans should be able to access public coverage through Medicare or a public option,” which could mean allowing 55 year olds to buy into Medicare
  • “We will fight to pass laws that direct the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards” – also known as “card check,” so unions can organize through direct pressure rather than having to win secret elections where workers are free to choose
  • Sanders had his effect on the financial regulation plank. The party calls for stringent regulation, breaking up “too big to fail” banks, and a “financial transactions tax on Wall Street to curb excessive speculation and high-frequency trading,” while acknowledging “that there is room within our party for a diversity of views on a broader financial transactions tax.”
  • While it’s not officially in the platform draft, Hillary Clinton has embraced Sanders’ proposal for free tuition at in-state schools for students from families who make $125,000 a year or less.

For all its focus on economic matters, there’s one glaring omission from the draft. Nowhere will you find a mention of our economy’s anemic growth or acknowledgement that it’s a problem. John Kennedy said that a rising tide lifts all boats; the Democrats in 2016 don’t acknowledge there’s a tide.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.