Democrats convene here and reach a consensus on the party's platform
Racing through minefields
August 10, 2008 4:00 AM
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Lawrenceville, listens as Carlos Brossard speaks out against National Guardsmen's extended involvement in the Iraq war during a press conference at the Democratic Party's National Platform session at the David Lawrence Convention Center yesterday. Mr. Brossard is a member of the Black Voices for Peace organization that has held a vigil outside the East Liberty Presbyterian Church every Saturday since the beginning of the Iraqi war.
By James O'Toole Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Democratic officials crossed a policy minefield without a misstep yesterday as they reached consensus on the party platform that will be submitted to the full convention in Denver later this month.
"I think there's such a hunger for change and you saw that in how smoothly things went,'' said Gov. Deval Patrick, of Massachusetts, a platform committee co-chair.
During a day-long meeting in the David Lawrence Convention Center, the 186-member Platform Committee raced through scores of proposed amendments without a hint of rancor. The placid deliberations were the product of weeks of preliminary hearings across the country and an effort by the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama to ensure that supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had a voice in the shaping of the traditional statement of party principles.
While that diplomatic mission was largely successful, the fallout from the nomination battle was evident in a brief debate on an amendment that would have called for an end to the role of state party caucuses in future presidential contests. A breakthrough win in Iowa's leadoff caucuses in January vaulted Mr. Obama to the front of the Democratic competition, and subsequent caucus victories were a key building block of the elected delegate advantage that Mr. Obama never relinquished.
Clinton supporters argued at the time that the caucuses are less democratic than a standard primary election because they typically have smaller turnouts than a primary. They also contended that caucuses tend to disenfranchise voters who cannot devote the time required for the sometimes lengthy community meetings.
Several former Clinton supporters, who were members of the committee, sought a vote on an amendment to the platform that would have called for a prohibition on caucuses in the future and "require all states to conduct primaries to select their delegates to future national conventions."
In language sure to rile the guardians of Iowa's gatekeeper event, the proposed amendment contended that, "Caucuses inherently disenfranchise the elderly, disabled, shift workers, single parents and others whose circumstances prohibit participation in caucuses.
Further, the 2008 primaries illustrated that a caucus vote is worth more than a primary vote because each delegate elected by caucuses represents fewer votes than each delegate elected by primary."
After a brief and fairly amicable discussion, the proposal was ruled out of order because it was deemed to come under the jurisdiction of the party's Rules Committee, rather than the platform panel.
Supporters said they would raise the issue again in that forum in Denver. Shortly after that small break in the facade of unity the Democrats sought to project, the committee voted to send its draft on to the convention.
Prameela Bartholomeusz, a platform committee member from California, insisted that while she had been active in the Clinton campaign, the proposal should not be viewed as an attack on Mr. Obama's nomination.
"This is not about looking back; it's about looking forward," she said.
Bob Remer, of Illinois, the prime sponsor of the failed amendment, called it a crucial voting rights issue. At the same time, however, reflecting the overall amity of the meeting, he praised "the amazing spirit of cooperation'' that he said committee officers and the Obama campaign had exhibited in dealing with his concerns.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the congressional representative for the District of Columbia, ascribed the relative lack of controversy to the fact that, "Democrats have learned that platform fights don't get you anywhere.''
The deliberations came in the wake of former Sen. John Edwards' sensational acknowledgment of an extramarital affair. While that news dominated headlines, several party members interviewed echoed the line that it had not been a preoccupation of the Democratic gathering.
"It just makes me so sad,'' said Ms. Holmes Norton.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, chairwoman of the platform drafting panel insisted that, "There's been no conversation about it at all.''
Mr. Remer, the Illinois delegate said, "I've just been to a reception and a meeting and I didn't hear anyone mention it.''
Outside the meeting room, a variety of demonstrators did their best to press the committee on their favored issues.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, joined state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, in a news conference calling on the platform drafters to endorse universal, single-payer health care coverage.
The platform that will be submitted in Denver calls for the goal of universal coverage -- "a commitment that every American man, woman and child be guaranteed to have affordable, comprehensive health care" -- but falls short of the single-payer concept in which all Americans would be enrolled in a Medicare like system.
Rep. Conyers, Mr. Ferlo and other advocates of universal single-payer health care had called for Democrats to embolden their effort to pass legislation Mr. Conyers sponsored in January 2007.
"This is the pinnacle of our protest for the 47 million Americans without health care," said Mr. Ferlo, speaking on behalf of the National Health Insurance bill, also known as HR 676.
"We know what works. Social Security works. Medicare works. And we want to give everyone that under a single payer and control executive salaries, profiteering, waste and abuse."
Mr. Conyers said no one would be excluded from care, whether for a toothache or a long spate of chemotherapy, under a law based on his bill. In other countries, he said, "people are stunned that we go into debt for health care."
Donna Smith, an activist who appeared in filmmaker Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko" about health care, said Democrats have "become much less bold than we used to be." She challenged the party to "stop feeding into" the system that she said permits insurance companies to charge women and people with disabilities disproportionately more than others.
"We need more health care, not more health insurance," she said.
Later, Iraq War opponents held a separate news conference to protest the war in general while calling for an end to National Guard deployments to Iraq. The platform draft states that Democrats "expect to complete redeployment within 16 months."
Mr. Ferlois sponsoring state legislation that aims to bring home members of the Pennsylvania National Guard and halt further deployments.
His bill states that the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force has expired and that there is no longer any lawful basis for the National Guard's presence or deployments to Iraq.
Mr. Ferlo said members of the Guard are needed at home to respond to national emergencies that require their aid. Another deployment this fall would mean 25 percent of the total strength of the Pennsylvania National Guard would be overseas, according to the Bring the Guard Home campaign.
Rep. Tony Payton, D-Philadelphia, is sponsoring the bill in the House. Similar legislation exists in several other states.
Members of anti-war groups, including veterans and mothers of slain soldiers, gathered around Mr. Ferlo to voice their support.
Staff writers Sadie Gurman and Diana Nelson Jones contributed to this report. Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at