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What the Platform Fiasco Says About the Dems

Spectacle is evidence of incompetence, not anti-Israel conspiracy.

Yair Rosenberg
September 06, 2012
Virginia Delegates at the 2012 DNC(AP)
Virginia Delegates at the 2012 DNC(AP)

You’re going to hear a lot in the coming days about the omission of Jerusalem (and reference to God) from the Democratic party platform, and how when party leadership attempted to reinstate the language—which had been present in previous platforms—the change was shouted down and booed by the assembled DNC delegates. Is the language’s initial removal an indication of President Obama’s secretly anti-Israel agenda? And is the adverse reaction to its reinstatement a demonstration of the profoundly anti-Israel feeling which animates the Democratic Party? Not quite. This entire sorry spectacle is not evidence of a conscious conspiracy, but rather mostly an exercise in incompetence.

To start, we need to understand one basic fact: Party platforms are utterly irrelevant. Here’s my former boss, Professor Walter Russell Mead explaining this point last week:

Hungry for story lines, any story lines, the press has occasionally tried to gin a little bit of drama out of fights over the party platform, but the honest truth is that no party platform means anything in American politics anymore. No president refers back to the platform in framing legislation, no congressional leader uses it to set the legislative agenda, no living soul ever reads or quotes it for any purpose whatever. …They are dead letters, produced out of a sense of ritual and to the extent they have any purpose whatever, they are idle playgrounds aimed at keeping clueless party zealots busy counting coup and scoring imaginary points.

Precisely because modern party platforms are empty and inconsequential, no one really polices them, even on important policy positions. Thus the RNC platform opposes all abortions with no exceptions for rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother, but no recent GOP presidential candidate—including Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush—has ever run on that.

More broadly, take a look at some of the weirdest bits from the current RNC platform that were shoe-horned in by party activists, including calls for a return to the Gold Standard and to fight creeping Sharia law.

Similarly, the DNC platform’s Africa agenda has stopping Joseph Kony as its top priority—more important, apparently, than anti-AIDS efforts. And so on. There’s simply nothing authoritative about the platform, and nothing necessarily representative of the broader party and candidate it purports to stand for, whether President Obama or Mitt Romney.

But what about the drama on the convention floor, when many delegates opposed the amendments to reintroduce the language on God and Jerusalem? Does that reveal some deep-seated animus towards Israel (and religion) within the Democratic party? Among some convention delegates, perhaps. In the rest of the party, not so much. Here’s why:

First, the people who attend national party conventions as delegates are the true believers. You have to either be a local elected official or fulfill a complex set of requirements to be chosen. Only the absolutely, unreservedly committed make it. (Trust me, I’ve been interviewing these people for the last two weeks.) This is a deliberate screening process—it’s meant by both parties to reward the faithful and curate the most enthusiastic television audience. But it can backfire when you want to insert a moderate position into your platform—whether on Israel, God, or abortion—and you have the most radical elements of your party on the floor doing the voting.

Which brings us to the second point, which is that the left-fringe of the Democratic Party—rather than the rank-and-file—is undeniably much more critical of Israel than the American and Democratic mainstream, much like the global left. That definitely played a role in the opposition to the Jerusalem language on the convention floor, as well as the opposition to the inclusion of God. But it says much less about the rest of the party, which consistently polls pro-Israel and pro-God.

Moreover, it’s crucial to keep in mind a third point, which is that these delegates personally participated in the voting on the party platform on Tuesday and enthusiastically adopted it. For a party bigwig to then get up on the podium and unilaterally propose post facto revisions is effectively to tell these individuals “you screwed up.” Naturally, this wasn’t well received, and was viewed as an anti-democratic attempt by party elites to impose positions on the delegates. Had the previous language on Jerusalem been in the platform to begin with, I doubt delegates would have cared. But once it was removed from the initial draft and ratified, delegates were committed to what they’d chosen.

As for how the original offending language (or lack thereof) got into the platform in the first place, Shmuel Rosner reports that former Congressman Robert Wexler, current president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, oversaw the drafting of this portion of the platform. Rosner suspects that this situation is a “case of a man who knows too much.”

He has too much of an opinion on the ‎issues to be able to think about the platform with the required simplicity. As he ‎omitted Jerusalem he was thinking—and I’m speculating here—about Israeli-‎Palestinian negotiation and leaving this issue for the two sides to determine, he was ‎thinking about Obama not taking sides so as not to alienate the Palestinians, he was ‎trying to be smart about it – and ended up damaging the party. Instead of doing the ‎simple, obvious thing, and repeating the 2008 language as not to make waves, Wexler ‎was trying to demonstrate his wits and mastery of the issues.

So basically, what transpired at the DNC was the result of a silly but well-intentioned mistake compounded by the fact that the convention floor was the absolute worst place to rectify it. (Note also that this sort of chaos broke out at the RNC when Republican Party leadership essentially disenfranchised Ron Paul supporting-delegates. I was there and saw it firsthand—but you barely heard a thing about the incident in the media because it didn’t involve the perpetually over-reported Israel. Party radicals protesting on the convention floor isn’t uncommon, just under-covered.)

All in all, this unfortunate episode is not revealing of anything that we didn’t already know, namely that (a) convention delegates are more radical than representative of their party’s broader constituency and (b) the far-left of the Democratic party is less pro-Israel than the rest of America.

It’s not an exoneration of the Democratic Party by any means. But it’s also not an indictment.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.