by Ralph Brauer | 8/24/2008 05:35:00 PM

I really wanted to like the Democrats' platform. I believed that Barack Obama could remake the Party as Woodrow Wilson did in 1912 when he united the progressives and the Bourbons. Now I am wondering if we are in for a replay of Dukakis, Clinton, Gore and Kerry--trying to walk down the middle of the road like a drunk trying to prove their sobriety.

Most of all I am beginning to wonder if all this talk about change is really just more of the same-old, same-old that has cost the Democrats the last two elections. Right now Barack Obama is running dead even with John McCain, having lost his early lead. If you read the platform you can understand why.

Of course, Obama will get a chance to put his personal stamp on the campaign with his much-anticipated speech to the convention. Expectations for this speech are so high that it will take a Michael Phelps-like miracle to pull it off. Even more critical is that Obama must have the classic post-convention "bump" if he stands any chance of winning.

If his speech is like the platform, he could be in trouble because as a written document the platform has all the flavor of someone trying to please everyone. Let's call it the Democratic two-step, for parts of the platform move close to a needed redefinition of the Party only to take two steps back. This is not a platform written by a confident Party, a Party that thought it would walk in the White House because George Bush and the Republicans have made such a mess of things. Instead this platform has all the earmarks of a Party that is afraid to lose.

As I have said so many times I am getting tired of hearing it, the platform and the Obama campaign must focus on principles and values. Change is neither a principle nor a value. It is at best a tactic and at worst empty rhetoric. Every obscure city council candidate who doesn't know what else to say runs on a platform of change. George W. Bush promised change.

For this reason the most important part of the platform is the preamble because it should lay out in precise language exactly what values will guide the Obama Administration. Check out this paragraph from the 1908 Democratic Platform:
The Democratic party is the champion of equal rights and opportunities to all; the Republican party is the party of privilege and private monopoly. The Democratic party listens to the voice of the whole people and gauges progress by the prosperity and advancement of the average man; the Republican party is subservient to the comparatively few who are the beneficiaries of governmental favoritism.

The first clue the 2008 preamble is in trouble is that it is too long. Having walked more organizations than I can count through the experience of defining visions and goal setting, I always stressed these statements must be short, to the point and pass the grocery store test: that is if you run into someone in the grocery store you should be able to repeat the vision in your own words.

The 2008 Democratic Platform fails this test miserably. After reading the preamble I could not summarize it if I was being waterboarded. It rambles on for three pages. Had the writers of the 2008 preamble been assigned to write the Declaration of Independence we might still be a British colony, for the entire preamble is longer than the entire Declaration. Imagine trying to post three pages on the nearest lamp post or tree.

Everyone knows the Declaration's opening paragraphs represent the gold standard. I did not expect the 2008 platform to equal Thomas Jefferson, because no one has ever accomplished that, but I didn't expect tin either. The lengthy preamble eerily reminds me of John Kerry's 2004 platform mess that provided a clue to the main weakness of his campaign. I still defy people to tell me what John Kerry ran on and what he stood for. I am worried we may find ourselves asking the same question a year from now.

In outline form a preamble should have three or four sections stating what we believe, why we believe it, what we intend to do with those beliefs, and why those beliefs are needed. Give each of these a paragraph and you have at most 1-2 pages. When you examine the 2008 preamble you find it consists of 16 paragraphs, of which five long paragraphs describe the mess George Bush and the Counterrevolution have created. Unfortunately these paragraphs consist of a laundry list of things we already know rather than zeroing in on the reason for the failures.

That reason is that quite simply the Republicans have a different philosophy of government. Pointing out that difference was the center of Democratic platforms for most of the twentieth century.

Take the 1932 platform, which BTW is only 40 paragraphs. it ends:
And in conclusion, to accomplish these purposes and to recover economic liberty, we pledge the nominees of this convention the best efforts of a great Party whose founder announced the doctrine which guides us now in the hour of our country's need: equal rights to all; special privilege to none.

Equal rights to all; special privilege to none." That is a clear statement of values anyone can remember.

The 1948 platform is a bit longer--although you still don't need to download a 54-page PDF file to read it-- but its values are unambiguous:
We chart our future course as we charted our course under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman in the abiding belief that democracy—when dedicated to the service of all and not to a privileged few—proves its superiority over all other forms of government.

In contrast the 2008 platform appears to have value statements scattered all over, some of them ambiguous, some wordy and some seemingly at odds with one another. First there is the verbose and grammatically-mangled (to "get" a good education?") first paragraph:
We come together at a defining moment in the history of our nation. America is the country that led the 20th Century, built a thriving middle class, defeated fascism and communism, and provided bountiful opportunity to many. We Democrats have a special commitment to this promise of America. We believe that each American, whatever their background or station in life, should have the chance to get a good education, to work at a good job with good wages, to raise and provide for a family, to live in safe surroundings, and to retire with dignity and security. We believe that quality and affordable health care is a basic right. We believe that each succeeding generation should have the opportunity, through hard work, service and sacrifice, to enjoy a brighter future than the last.

Then we find another statement on line 15 of page 2:
Today, we pledge a return to core moral principles like stewardship, service to others, personal responsibility, shared sacrifice and a fair shot for all –values that emanate from the integrity and optimism of our Founders and generations of Americans since.

Finally, there is a third values paragraph at the top of page 3:
Today, America must unite again –to help our most vulnerable residents get back on their feet and to restore the vitality of both urban centers and family farms –because the success of each depends on the success of the other. And America must challenge us again –to serve our country and to meet our responsibilities –whether in our families or local governments; our civic organizations or places of worship. We must act in the knowledge that each of us has a stake in our neighbors’ dreams and struggles, as well as our own, and recognize the dignity in each of us.

The first paragraph is closest to those of 1908, 1932 and 1948. The addition of health care as a separate sentence and the only issue listed as a basic right not only reads badly, but singles out one area when in fact all are important. The final paragraph about succeeding generations could easily have been cut out or incorporated in the other two. Here is one attempt at a rewrite:
At this defining moment we look back upon what the world views as the American Century, during which this nation won two world wars and the Cold War, conquered the Great Depression, put a man on the moon, and provided more prosperity for a larger percentage of its citizens than any nation in history. We Democrats celebrate this promise of America because it was Democrats who made it happen. Like the great Democratic leaders who defined and transformed the twentieth century, we believe that every American, whatever their background or station in life, should have the opportunity to receive a quality education, to work at a meaningful job with good wages, to raise a family whose needs are provided for, to live in safe surroundings, to receive the world's best health care and to retire with dignity and security, knowing the next generation shall enjoy a brighter future than the last.

Unfortunately the force of this paragraph is diluted by an entirely different set of principles later in the preamble, many of them ambiguous buzzwords--stewardship, service--the tone of which evokes some favorite Republican code words that have been used as far back as the early twentieth century to justify a position that government does not have an obligation to keep the playing field level. Just ask yourself how will stewardship, service, and personal responsibility solve the mortgage crisis.

Finally we come to the third paragraph, which is the worst of them all. It tries to have it both ways in the long-running dispute between more or less government and only succeeds in muddying the issue even more than it already is--which is not easy.

So in the end, take your pick of which Democratic Party you want: a, b or c. Frankly, b and c would not be out of place in a Republican Platform, if only because they are so nebulous. When the Democratic Party puts on its show for the networks pay careful attention to which of these three emerges or if the delegates are unable to make up their minds. By putting their candidate in such a difficult position this platform committee has substantially upped the stakes for his speech.

All this is not helped by John McCain's recent moves to paint himself as the original maverick and take away what had been Obama's territory. The strategy is becoming clearer: the McCain campaign will seek to show their candidate is the original change agent. Obama's choice of Joe Biden as his running mate may shore up the campaign's foreign policy weaknesses, but instead of distancing himself from Washington, it puts Obama right in the center of it. If McCain, as expected, chooses Mitt Romney as his running mate he will have performed yet another remarkable metamorphosis, turning Barack Obama into the establishment candidate.

Meanwhile if Hillary Clinton continues her lukewarm support and adds to it disappoitment over the Vice Presidency, it will inflict a deep wound on Obama. I predict Hillary will saddle Bill with sounding the trumpets for Obama while she will continue to provide only token support.

At the center of all this is the platform. Reading it I am not sure any more what a Democrat is. If I am not sure what a Democrat is then I--and many others--are not sure they are Democrats.

Having said that, I still prefer the Democrats' mushiness to the alternative of having the rapier-like verbal preciseness of another Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Cour



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/25/2008 2:13 PM:

Very well done, Ralph. One minor quibble: I'd say that Wilson in 1912 was a middle-of-the-roader -- halfway between the radical progressivism of Roosevelt and La Follette and the conservatism of Underwood and Clark. Had I been around in 1912, I would undoubtedly have been a strong Roosevelt partisan and been sorely disappointed in Wilson's victory.

Also, no matter how good this platform was, it couldn't possibly have been as good as Ignatius Donnelly's 1892 Omaha Platform for the Populist Party. Just a taste:

We have witnessed for more than a quarter of a century the struggles of the two great political parties for power and plunder, while grievous wrongs have been inflicted upon the suffering people. We charge that the controlling influences dominating both these parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise us any substantial reform. They have agreed together to ignore, in the coming campaign, ever issue but one. They propose to drown the outcries of a plundered people with the uproar of a sham battle over the tariff, so that capitalists, corporations, national banks, rings, trusts, watered stock, the demonetization of silver and the oppressions of the usurers may all be lost sight of. They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.

Now that's the kind of platform I wanted to see this cycle. Unfortunately, Obama is too much of a weenie to go that route.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/25/2008 8:01 PM:

"Now that's the kind of platform I wanted to see this cycle. Unfortunately, Obama is too much of a weenie to go that route."

Agreed - except that in 1892 more average citizens were involved in political parties (so funding wasn't mainly provided by business wealth) and right-wing media didn't have a monopoly over what most people consumed in the way of news.

If only we had a William Randolph Hearst today! I'm speaking of course, prior to when he drank the cool-aid as the Depression set in.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/25/2008 9:17 PM:

You want short and sweet? How about twelve words leading to six paragraphs.

I'd fold "retirement security" into the "fair wages" section and make it ten words, myself.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/25/2008 9:40 PM:

Or, for a real political party with a platform that small, try this.


Blogger Ralph Brauer on 8/25/2008 10:04 PM:


Actually been spending quite a bit of time lately with the 1912 convention--all 200 pages of transcript. What seems clear is that Wilson's floor people were middle-of-the-road. They actually urged him to withdraw when Charlie Murphy swung NY to Clark. Yet there were others in the Wilson camp--Tumulty, McAdoo--with more progressive leanings who kept Wilson from withdrawing. The evolution of Wilson's thinking over the time leading up the convention and during it is fascinating.

As for TR, just to spark some debate, I think he may deserve the title of most overrated President based on his jingoistic foreign policy alone. His domestic record is mixed and certainly lacks the true progressivism of a Donnelly or a Bryan.

The note from Anonymous has some truth. Recent studies have shown that what is termed "associational density" (participation in community organizations) enjoyed its greatest years from 1870-1920. Having done a great deal of community organizing, the lack of associational density pinpointed by Bowling Alone and other studies is a HUGE political problem. Being a bit older I kid my son sometimes and say that his generation blogs and text messages; ours took to the streets.

Finally AH, good to have you back and also to hear the move went well. I agree totally. My rewrite was just a shot at tightening what was already there to show what a mess it was. Some of the grammar in it is appalling for a major document, the worst being the use of "get" an education.

I would not have written the paragraph that way myself. Your comment highlights one rule--lists such as the one in that paragraph should highlight three, maybe four items. In rhetorical terms the problem with the list is that the author is not sure whether to hang the paragraph. around a list of concepts or a "life history" construction. My point is the grammatical sloppiness and rhetorical confusion--as all of us who have graded papers know--highlights intellectual sloppiness and confusion.

BTW, the life history device has been used well by two very good Minnesota senators--Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey.

I used the Wellstone paragraph as the epigraph for my book:

I believe that every infant, every child we hold in our hands, no matter what color of skin, no matter boy or girl, no matter rich or poor, no matter rural or urban, and no matter what religion, that every child that we hold in our hands, is one of God's children. I believe that every child, every infant should have the same chance to reach his or her potential. I tell you, that is the goodness of this country, that is the American dream, that is what makes us a great Nation, and that is the most important goal for our Nation. And whatever makes that possible, I'm for it. And whatever stands in the way of that, I'm against it.

Now that's real rhetoric!


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/25/2008 10:17 PM:

Ralph, wasn't McAdoo Wilson's floor manager? I'm not an expert on that convention, but that was my memory.

Also, while I wouldn't call TR the most overrated President (that title belongs squarely to Eisenhower), I don't think he was a fabulous President. His Presidency was different from what he stood for in 1912, however, and it is that platform that I would have backed wholeheartedly.


Blogger Ralph Brauer on 8/26/2008 10:59 PM:

No, it was William McCombs. He actually was ready to release the Wilson delegates when Roger Sullivan ran across the floor and said, "Don't you dare do that!" McCombs then called Wilson for instructions.
Both Tumulty and McAdoo were with Wilson at Sea Girt.

At the time the informal rule was that if a candidate had a majority, then the other candidates would bow out to give the winner the 2/3 needed. McCombs was merely following that practice.

However a fire-eater with the colorful name of "Alfalfa Bill" Murray (why don't politicians have names like that any more) gave a rousing speech that asked the convention to not give in to Murphy.

BTW your reference to the 1912 TR platform is germane--now there is a preamble!

I quote it below for those who have not read it:

The conscience of the people, in a time of grave national problems, has called into being a new party, born of the nation's sense of justice. We of the Progressive party here dedicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the duty laid upon us by our fathers to maintain the government of the people, by the people and for the people whose foundations they laid.

We hold with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln that the people are the masters of their Constitution, to fulfill its purposes and to safeguard it from those who, by perversion of its intent, would convert it into an instrument of injustice. In accordance with the needs of each generation the people must use their sovereign powers to establish and maintain equal opportunity and industrial justice, to secure which this Government was founded and without which no republic can endure.

This country belongs to the people who inhabit it. Its resources, its business, its institutions and its laws should be utilized, maintained or altered in whatever manner will best promote the general interest.

It is time to set the public welfare in the first place.

Not a bad start for a third party today!


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/27/2008 3:19 PM:

Now this is an interesting little tidbit. First of all, you're right about McCombs -- my memory was faulty on that one. However, I went back and checked my source, which was 1912 by the late James Chace. Here's what he says about the releasing of the delegates:

When McAdoo went to see McCombs, he was told that Wilson had given up and had authorized McCombs to release his delegates, and that he also had a telegram from the governor to that effect. "You have betrayed the governor," the appalled McAdoo remembered saying. "You have sold him out." He then reached for the nearest telephone, called Sea Girt, and told Wilson that although Clark now had a majority of the votes, he did not have the nomination. Wilson seized the moment and countermanded his instructions to McCombs, insisting that the work continue. (p. 154)

The citation appears to come from McAdoo's autobiography, Crowded Years. There's no mention of Sullivan's actions.

Now, Chace's book isn't known for having taken a particularly deep look into these details, and he might easily have been snowed by McAdoo's overselling of his own importance. Probably the definitive book on the 1912 conventions is the recently-released Four Hats in the Ring, by Louis L. Gould, which I haven't yet read. I wonder what Gould has to say about this. (Disclaimer: I've done a bit of paid work for Gould in the past.)


Blogger Ralph Brauer on 8/28/2008 5:36 PM:

Sometimes when you post late at night, your mind gets a bit messed up. I don't know why I placed McAdoo at Sea Girt. He was in Baltimore.

Gould says it was Wilson who blinked, writing, "McCombs sat on the telegram." Gould gives no source for his quote. He dies not use the McAdoo or Sullivan stories.

The most interesting source of all is an obscure letter sent to the NY Times by McCombs' private secretary trying to clear up facts about the 1912 convention. He says Wilson sent a telegram not to McCombs but to Bryan saying that he [Wilson] would not accept the nomination if it could not be secured without the aid of the NY delegation. McCombs' secretary claims that caused Bryan's switch on the 14th ballot.

Of course, this seems preposterous on so many counts. But what is interesting is that McCombs' secretary could have mentioned a telegram from Wilson to McCombs but there is no mention of any such telegram in his letter.

So what we do know is this, Wilson and McCombs both considered releasing the delegates, but in the end they were not. Chace sees McAdoo as the key intervener. Tumulty was quite close to McAdoo and in his chapter gives both McAdoo and Sullivan credit for stopping McCombs. If it had been McAdoo alone, I am sure Tumulty would have given him full credit.

I buy Tumulty's account at the moment because Sullivan would have been the logical one to intervene since at the time he was head of the Illinois delegation and an Underwood supporter, so Wilson's withdrawal would have doomed his candidate also.

The notion that Wilson would have telegraphed Bryan makes no sense at all and is cited neither in Bryan's memoirs or Kazin's most recent work.

That McCombs would have sat on the telegram also appears out of character. The man was incapable of sitting on anything. Notice in Chace's account its is McCombs who asks Wilson for permission to release the delegates. Most of the other material on that page comes directly from Tumulty, including the scene of Mrs. Wilson weeping. Chace gives no source for the McAdoo quote.

So while I am still trying to put this one together here is my sense of what could have happened. McAdoo and McCombs could have been arguing over what to do,attracting the attention of Sullivan, or the wily McAdoo could have even enlisted Sullivan's support. The Sullivan story also fits in another sense. Clearly the Wilson camp was torn about what to do after Murphy's move. This parallels their earlier reactions to several other crises during the campaign such as the famous Bryan telegram--all of which involved fights between McCombs and Tumulty and McAdoo.

That someone like Sullivan would break in to prevent Wilson from releasing his delegates seems to make sense.

BTW, it would be Sullivan's votes that would put Wilson over the top late in the convention.

And who said history wasn't fun. Here the entire course of the twentieth century hangs on whether or not a telegram was sent and no one has a definitive answer.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/28/2008 10:19 PM:

Yeah, this is awesome. The only thing I'd argue with is that I do think Chace's footnote #18 covers the whole paragraph, which is what led me to assume that the McAdoo quote came from McAdoo's autobiography (Chace names four sources in that note, but it seems most likely that McAdoo would be the one to quote himself.)

What did you think of the Gould book overall? I know he focuses on the Republican convention and the argument that Taft won because he out-politicked Roosevelt rather than because of institutional machinations -- I've seen some documentation that confirms that.