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Bernie Sanders’s fight over the Democratic convention’s platform, explained

Bernie Sanders in Manhattan this week.
Bernie Sanders in Manhattan this week.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has said the Democratic Party must adopt several of his top policy priorities if it’s going to successfully represent the interests of working-class Americans.

He got a bit closer to that goal when party officials released details around several key policies after meetings this weekend in St. Louis, Missouri.

The platform just outlines the key "ideas and beliefs" of the party — it doesn’t bind any of its members to particular actions, but it’s supposed to represent a sort of blueprint for where the party is headed.

Sanders wants those goals to be as closely aligned to his as possible before throwing his support behind Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Big fights on other parts of the platform loom ahead, but he’s already claiming some important wins — and we’re still about a month away from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

"I think there was an effort to reach a middle ground," James Zogby, a Sanders appointee to the committee, told me in an interview. "Sanders has already had an impact on the debate, and on the platform."

Added Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, another Sanders appointee and co-chair of the progressive caucus, in an interview with the Associated Press: "We got some great stuff in the platform that has never been in there before. We've made some substantial moves forward."

Here are some areas where Sanders can claim victory in helping to move the party:

  • Wall Street regulation: New wording in the party’s platform will make breaking up the banks and passing a new version of the Glass-Steagall Act two key priorities, according to a news release from the Democratic National Committee. (In a news release, Sanders celebrated the "very good" language adopted by the party on banking reform.)
  • Death penalty: The party’s platform also has new language calling for the eradication of the death penalty as a "cruel and unusual form of punishment" that has "no place" in the US. 

    That's a win for Sanders, who had called for absolutist opposition to the death penalty. (Clinton has backed its use in limited circumstances.)
  • Earned income tax credit: The 2016 platform’s draft language will call on a specific expansion of the EITC to "low wage workers who don’t have children and to workers age 21 and older," according to the party’s news release.

    (The 2012 platform only praised President Obama for expanding the EITC in general, according to the Washington Post’s David Weigel.)
  • Criminal justice reform: Another part of the draft platform calls for an end to "the era of mass incarceration, shutting down private prisons, ending racial profiling, reforming the grand jury process, investing in re-entry programs, banning the box to help give people a second chance and prioritizing treatment over incarceration for individuals suffering addiction."

    This is a big change from 2012 — when the party’s platform had the narrower aim of wanting to "understand the disproportionate effects of crime, violence, and incarceration on communities of color" and expressed a commitment to "working with those communities to find solutions."
  • Fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage: This was a quasi-win for Sanders’s forces: The party’s platform draft does say that "Americans should earn at least $15 an hour," and it also calls on the minimum wage to be increased. But Sanders complained that his delegates didn’t get quite what he wanted: a commitment from the party to raising the federal minimum wage to the $15 figure.

    The distinction may seem semantic, but Sanders die-hards say they’ll continue to try to force the party’s hand on the issue. Still, the party has clearly moved in his direction, with Clinton herself expressing tepid support for the $15-an-hour wage at a debate.

Where the party hasn’t moved as far as Sanders wants

But while the platform incorporates much of the leftward pull Sanders represents, he also maintains that it doesn’t go nearly far enough on a slew of critical issues.

"We’re still disappointed we lost as many as we did," said Zogby, the Sanders-chosen delegate, in our interview. (Sanders similarly said "there is no question that much more work remains to be done" ahead of the DNC convention in July.)

Here are some of the policies where Sanders’s forces will want to pull the party further (some pro-Sanders media outlets said the draft of the platform was "betraying progressives"):

  • Opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: The DNC’s draft platform does call on the party to oppose trade deals that don’t uphold environmental standards and workers’ rights. But Sanders’s delegates wanted language committing the party to oppose the controversial TPP deal — a proposal that was shot down by the other delegates on the committee.

    That’s partly understandable — it’d be awkward for the Democratic Party to oppose a deal brokered and supported by President Obama — but it’s also odd given that Hillary Clinton herself also opposes the trade proposal, at least as a matter of record.
  • Rejecting two key environmental proposals: Two environmental proposals from Sanders’s delegates — a carbon tax and a ban on fracking — were also shot down by the rest of the platform committee, according to Sanders’s statement.
  • Stance on Israeli settlements: Late Friday night, the party rejected an amendment from Zogby that would have called on an end to Israel’s "occupation and illegal settlements" in Palestine, according to the Associated Press. That fight symbolizes a clear divide between Sanders and Clinton, who is generally viewed as much more pro-Israel.

    Instead, the draft of the platform does call for Palestine to be treated with "independence, sovereignty, and dignity" — a step forward from previous platforms, Zogby said, but not the more sweeping language Sanders's allies had sought.

What happens next?

This fight is just a prelude for another upcoming one in Orlando, Florida, where on July 8 and 9 yet another committee will debate what the party platform should look like. And that, in turn, is a fight for what will be debated at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia starting July 25.

Sanders is already saying that he'll try to put many of the measures already shot down last weekend back up for a vote in Orlando next week.

Those are also likely to go down to defeat. But there’s a possible path to victory here, too: If Sanders’s proposals get at least 20 percent support in Orlando, then they automatically have to be considered for debate in Philadelphia by all of the convention’s delegates, according to Zogby.

They might fail to pass there too, of course. But that would, at the least, force the party’s delegates to take a stand one way or another on Sanders’s key proposals — and, Zogby notes, would give them a greater hearing than they would have received otherwise.

Does this really matter?

Commentators downplaying the platform’s significance note that it has no actual enforcement mechanism, and that there’s no guarantee a President Hillary Clinton wouldn’t jettison most — or all — of its main provisions.

And that’s true. But while the platform itself isn’t binding, it does represent the stated objectives of the Democratic Party. What it says is the clearest expression of what the party stands for and is, more broadly, one of the best ways to gauge the party's overall direction.

Given that it’s moving Sanders’s way on several key issues, it’s a good sign that even if Sanders lost the nomination to Clinton, his candidacy will have a lasting legacy on the party.

And that really could change the party’s members: Ryan Enos, a professor at Harvard University, told me in May that just by being aired, these ideas can gain currency and support among lawmakers.

"We know that voters in the public get pulled in the direction of the people with the microphone," Enos says. "If someone gets up there and tries pulling some issue to the left, the party can move in that direction."