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Democrats Advance Most Progressive Platform in Party History

Democrats advanced what is easily the most liberal agenda in the party’s history Saturday night after a sometimes contentious meeting.
Image: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Cloverdale, California
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally in Cloverdale, California, U.S. June 3, 2016.STEPHEN LAM / Reuters

ORLANDO, Fla. — Democrats this weekend advanced what is easily their most liberal platform ever as representatives of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton strove toward unity during a sometimes contentious party meeting.

The draft platform, which still needs to be ratified at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later this month, showed Sanders’ clear influence, even though he lost a battle on his top priority: opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“We are proud of the work that Democrats did in Orlando and for coming together to further strengthen the most progressive platform in the history of our party,” said Clinton senior policy adviser Maya Harris as the two-day Platform Committee meeting wrapped up late Saturday night.

The document goes further left than Clinton’s position on a number of issues, with Sanders policy director Warren Gunnells saying his campaign achieved “at least 80 percent” of what it came for. “I think if you read the platform right now, you will understand that the political revolution is alive and kicking,” he said.

And both campaigns used the platform process to find common ground, moving ahead with plans for Sanders to endorse Clinton at an event in New Hampshire on Tuesday.

But just as the meeting was coming to a harmonious close came a reminder of the work left to do. Sanders supporters in the audience, many of whom will be delegates to the national convention, erupted in protest and shouted down an amendment to call Clinton the party’s nominee.

Sanders campaign officials had signed off on the language, which also praised Sanders, but its sponsors decided to withdraw the unity plank given the uproar from the gallery.

Still, both campaigns left Orlando feeling good about the document they produced and optimistic about their ability to work together to defeat presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump.

At least two process issues still remain.

Sanders has 48 hours to decide whether he’ll demand a vote at the Democratic National Convention on any of the amendments he lost. Sanders delegates signed petitions to start that process, but Gunnells said forcing a floor vote was “the last thing on my mind.”

And both campaigns will have to work through an entirely separate process on party rules ahead of the convention, where Sanders will push to eliminate superdelegates.

Related: Democrats' Platform Calls for End to Death Penalty

Clinton won the nomination and now effectively controls the party, but it was Sanders who drove the process in Orlando. While many questioned his decision to stay in the primary race long after losing the nomination, none of the progress of his ideas on the platform would have happened if he had dropped out.

Party platforms are unenforceable message documents that are generally ignored almost as quickly as they’re written. Democrats have not had a contested platform process since 1988 or one fought in the open like this since 1980.

While critics scoffed at the attention to a platform this year, both campaigns, along with President Obama’s administration, clearly thought it was important enough to take seriously.

Delegates fought over details as they worked into the wee hours of the morning over two days, debating the substance and morality of every public policy question under the sun as a boisterous galley cheered and booed from the back of the room.

And if nothing else, Sanders allies say they will use the document to press Clinton to follow through on the promises codified there if she wins the presidency.

“Now, let’s put in place a president that can actually deliver on this -- and then let’s make sure that she does,” said Sanders backer Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP.

One of the Clinton campaign’s main concerns seemed to be preventing the platform from containing anything that Republicans could construe as a major tax increase. They opposed taxing carbon, single-payer health care and eliminating the Social Security tax cap.

Sanders’ team came into Florida with a number of wins secured in an earlier round of platform drafting on Wall Street reform, Social Security expansion and opposition to the death penalty.

His biggest win came Friday night, when the Clinton campaign agreed to a plank raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexing it to inflation.

His biggest loss came the next morning, when Democrats twice voted down a plank opposing the TPP, a massive trade pact that Sanders says is bad for workers, substituting it with language calling for tough standards on new trade deals.

Meanwhile, both sides came together to unanimously pass a strong criminal justice plank and an aggressive climate plan that calls for putting a price on carbon.

Clinton aides were quick to note, however, that the presumptive Democratic nominee does not actually support carbon pricing, saying she prefers executive actions that don’t require congressional approval. “It’s not her plan,” said Clinton energy adviser Trevor Houser.

Democrats approved compromise language on fracking that allows federal, state and local government to apply more regulations, while stopping short of the outright ban Sanders sought.

The climate section earned the strong backing of Sanders-aligned environmentalists like filmmaker Josh Fox and Bill McKibben.

The process was uneven at times, as leaders stumbled through the rules, reflecting their unfamiliarity with a process that has not been used in years. At times, the heated debate felt farcical, like when delegates debated whether to call the Dodd-Frank financial reform law merely "landmark" or "landmark and historic.”

Meanwhile, Sanders allies won an accidental victory when the committee approved -- by a single vote -- a plank to include a “reasoned pathway for future legalization” of marijuana. (Clinton supports medical marijuana and rescheduling the drug, but not legalization.)

Several delegates had apparently misplaced the devices they used to vote. But after much discussion, Clinton delegates allowed the vote to stand -- a move that earned one of the loudest cheers of the entire meeting.

However, Sanders lost several key votes beyond TPP.

Issues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stirred the most passion from observers, with police officers wading into the audience at several points as activists shouted at the delegates.

A Sanders-backed measure to "end the occupation” of Palestinians failed, as did one calling for an international effort to rebuild the Gaza Strip.

Sanders also lost a vote on an amendment calling for a ban to so-called “revolving doors” between the government and the private sector.

For both sides, the platform process was about making sure Sanders supporters felt heard. Clinton needs their votes in November, and Sanders needed to bring home some spoils to his supporters to justify his campaign.

They mostly succeeded, but as the opposition in the room and on social media showed, there may be some who never come on board.