Journey to the Center

Who knew that Bernie Sanders’s appointees to the Democratic platform committee were into self-mutilation? How else does one explain their willingness to cut off their noses to spite their faces?

I don’t quite understand the logic of trying to force the platform to adopt every last one of the Vermont Senator’s preferred issues, in particular issues that could severely damage the presumptive Democratic nominee in the general election. Particularly eyebrow-raising is the effort to push the platform to promote a fracking ban, as well as a carbon tax:

Hillary Clinton supporters may have given a nod to rival Sen. Bernie Sanders by calling for tougher banking laws and highlighting other positions he’s championed in drafting the Democratic Party’s platform.

But their rejection of a carbon tax and a fracking ban has enraged some environmentalists and validated the concerns of some in the Sanders camp that Clinton is too tied to corporate interests to press as hard as they’d like on issues such as climate change…

Clinton’s campaign has said U.S. natural gas production helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by moving energy use away from coal. She has instead focused on preventing damage attributed to hydraulic fracturing – the controversial process used by natural gas and oil drillers.

As for a carbon tax, she said it’s unlikely to pass the Republican Congress.

[Sanders platform-committee appointee Bill] McKibben, in an email, said the coming election appeared to be a factor for platform writers. Clinton’s supporters in the group were concerned that environmental protections could hurt her in November in battleground states such as Pennsylvania.

Sanders’s appointees cannot calm the concern that if the Democratic platform endorses a ban on fracking, such an endorsement would jeopardize Clinton’s chances of winning fracking-friendly states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. (God bless New York for banning fracking, but not every state is there yet, unfortunately.) Nor can Sanders’s supporters alleviate the anxiety that if the platform endorses a carbon tax, such an endorsement would imperil the extensive efforts over the past nine years to firm up bipartisan support for this compelling concept by making this policy a politically polarized one.

There is an argument–a very painful one from a progressive perspective, yes, but a real one nonetheless–that in an election that will feature hyper-aggressive efforts to suppress Democratic votes in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Clinton must position herself firmly in the center-left, not as a Sanders-style progressive, in order to attract the non-Democratic votes she would need to win the general election. The argument that she must position herself to the left of the 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama cannot survive logical scrutiny.

A boldly progressive Democratic platform might appeal to the sensibilities of Sanders supporters, but there is a real risk that it could repel, for example, the sort of folks who swooned over John McCain in 2000 and Jon Huntsman in 2012. Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman’s recent suggestion that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming equally unhinged is annoying, to say the least, but if there are indeed large numbers of voters who buy into that worldview, Clinton cannot, under any circumstances, afford to alienate those voters.

For the foreseeable future, the Democratic Party will be a coalition of progressives and centrists. That’s the very definition of a big tent. It is illogical and dangerous to use the Democratic platform as a way to signal that centrists ought to be forced out of that tent. That’s something former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, a Clinton appointee to the platform committee, understands, especially as it pertains to climate:

[D]ebating the merits of different policy solutions is quite different from setting up a litmus test for what it takes to be “serious” about climate change. And that is what the Sanders campaign and its representatives have done, claiming that the Democratic platform falls short because it does not include their preferred amendments to enact a carbon tax and immediately ban all oil and gas production through hydraulic fracturing.

If we were to accept that a carbon tax and a fracking ban are the only “right” policies, every state that we consider a climate leader would fail the test. California has some of the most ambitious climate targets in the country, with a governor and state legislature that support climate action. But as the pioneering chair of their Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, told our committee, California uses a range of standards, incentives and other tools to meet its climate targets—because that is what the state’s leaders find most effective. They have decided to regulate fracking, rather than ban it outright. They put a price on carbon, but through a cap-and-trade program, not a carbon tax. Even Sanders’ home state of Vermont does not have a carbon tax.

Browner also notes:

[W]e do face a serious threat to the future of our country and our planet: the possibility that Donald Trump, a man who has said climate change is a hoax, could succeed Barack Obama as president of the United States.

If the final version of the Democratic platform effectively sabotages Clinton’s chances of winning the general election, how exactly does that advance the progressive cause? The noted British philosopher Mick Jagger observed that you can’t always get what you want. Someone should remind Sanders’s appointees on the committee that if you try to get what you want, you may well end up with absolutely nothing.

UPDATE: More from the AP and the Washington Post.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.