Greg Sargent had a good item yesterday on the question of whether Democrats will support marriage equality in their 2012 platform. That’s a great question, but it occurs to me that there’s an even better question: Will the Democrats retreat from their platform commitment on civil liberties?
As many have noted, Barack Obama’s record on the various “war on terror” constitutional issues has been mixed at best (for an indictment, see, for example, Conor Friedersdorf here and here). In my view, there’s a reasonable debate to be had about the extent to which Obama has broken promises, but certainly those who care about these issues are a whole lot less enthusiastic about Obama than they were in 2008. Even on those issues where (in my view) the responsibility for falling short lies with Congress or the bureaucracy and not the president, it’s certainly true that he’s long since given up on visibly fighting over such things as closing Gitmo.
And yet, inconveniently, the 2008 Democratic Party platform is still out there promising to “close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay” and “revisit the Patriot Act” and reject sweeping claims of “inherent presidential power.” The key promise? “We will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools to hunt down and take out terrorists without undermining our Constitution, our freedom, and our privacy.” (I recommend reading the full platform plank, under the heading “Reclaiming Our Constitution and Our Liberties).
Party platforms are funny documents. They certainly don’t play a significant role in the fall election; no swing voter will be swayed by what the platform says. And while presidents do strongly tend to keep their promises (and Obama can surely claim to have enacted some of what he promised on these issues, and he can claim to have tried but failed on many others), a commitment in the party platform is a relatively weak form of binding the president, certainly compared to the words he speaks, especially those he repeats often and in high-visibility settings. Yet party platforms do tend to reflect the party’s position on issues, and those involved tend to take the fights over platform planks very seriously indeed.
So that leaves the question: What will the 2012 Democratic Party platform say about civil liberties? What will it say about the U.S. government’s lethal attacks on citizens overseas? About Gitmo and military tribunals? About drone wars? And, perhaps a more important question: Will Democratic activists push the party to keep and perhaps strengthen its platform — and if so, will the Obama campaign push back?
The marriage fight is interesting, but we all know where the Democratic Party is headed on that issue; the only questions are when and how publicly it’s going to get there. But on civil liberties issues, there’s a real fight within the party, and it’s entirely unclear how it ends up. Or at least, there’s real disagreement: Whether there’s a real fight depends a lot on whether those who believe that the president has been disappointing or worse choose to press on it. The party platform isn’t the only way to do so, of course. However, it certainly is an opportunity for that fight, and it’ll be interesting to see whether it becomes a battleground.