The Democratic platform from 1980, the last time a Democratic president faced a really tough reelection fight, and the one put out on Monday night offer a window into why President Obama is in better shape than President Carter was—and how the Democratic Party still has blind spots.
The 1980 platform seems like an artifact. While Ronald Reagan’s Republican platform that year was heavy on promotion of the national interest—faith, freedom, and family—Democrats put out a laundry list. There were calls for more money for fisheries, “a massive increase in the urban development programs of the Economic Development Administration,” full warranties for cars, and, if that wasn’t enticing enough, gender and racial breakdowns of judicial appointments. All of these may be good things, but the cumulative effect is of a party that believes all good things come from government.
At one point, the platform just ticked off programs the Carter administration was spending more on than the Ford administration had (“bilingual education by 113 percent, National Health Service Corps by 179 percent”). Again, that’s arguably wise spending, but the assumption that the reader—the undecided voter—might be lured by additional spending is kind of amazing in retrospect.
Obama’s platform has a much more readable, persuasive mien than Carter’s, but it’s not without flaws. There’s odd braggadocio, such as the claim that “we are substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it.” There are mixed metaphors like the pledge that everyone “has a seat at the American table and the opportunity to grab the first rung on the ladder to the middle class.” (I’m confused. Is the table under the ladder?) There’s no mention of monetary policy or the Federal Reserve, but four mentions of business “writing its own rules.” Reading the platform, you wouldn’t really know that $5 trillion had been added to the national debt, but you would see no fewer than 75 uses of the word “invest” and its derivatives.
The platform may not be as troubled as Carter’s, but it’s also short in areas that could have been helpful to Obama. There’s nothing about welfare. Given Mitt Romney’s claims that Obama plans to gut welfare reform, this might have been a good time to underscore the party’s support for the work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children. The Romney charge is mostly bunk, but not entirely. Waivers could weaken the work requirements. The platform could have made clear that that would not happen.
The platform avoids the word “stimulus,” which is a little like FDR ignoring the phrase “New Deal.” It’s true that there are almost 10 mentions of the Recovery Act, which is the same as the original $787 billion measure, but if you’re not going to use the most common moniker, it’s a little bit off.
There are other discordant notes. The education section, which reads like it was written by the teachers unions, doesn’t mention anything about firing bad teachers—only giving “struggling teachers a chance to succeed.” Did the Democrats really need to cede this point to the Republicans?
Although platforms may be less important now, they are not dispensable, either. They are statements of a party’s beliefs, or at least what it wants us to believe are its beliefs. And the public, according to a recent Pew survey, is more interested in the platform than the speakers at these conventions, which you can take at face value or regard with the skepticism you might apply to an eighth-grader saying he likes homework. Either way, the Obama platform, for all its flaws, is a well-written, muscular defense of the past three and a half years. That’s better than what Carter did.
It’s unfair to compare the committee-written platform to the president’s much-admired memoirs. But you would think that a president who was such a good writer might have directed his party to do better.