Berman: A platform worth building on

By Fred Berman

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Massachusetts Democratic Party is holding hearings about its party platform in preparation for the annual state convention, at which the current platform will be amended or replaced. Yes, replaced. According to a letter posted on the party's Web site from platform committee chairwoman Martina Jackson, party leaders are considering scrapping the existing eloquent and comprehensive statement of Democratic principles-in-action, in favor of "a shorter document reflecting core Democratic values." I am reminded of a cartoon, drawn in the aftermath of the Patriot Act, depicting President Bush cutting and pasting a "shorter and simpler" Bill of Rights.

While the party platform, like any such document, could certainly stand periodic amendment and updating, it outlines a set of values and positions that any Massachusetts Democrat - for that matter, any American - should be proud to support. If the platform were better publicized - and if voters were convinced that elected Democrats were truly committed to its tenets - the Democratic Party wouldn't now be struggling to reverse a trend that has seen unaffiliated/independent voters replace registered Democrats as the majority of the state's electorate.

Beginning with a "pledge to work for and support an agenda that creates opportunity, recognizes responsibility and builds community," the platform builds a bridge connecting the promises of the U.S. Constitution to the realities of the 21st century: "We recognize that a life which 'insures domestic tranquility' must provide good jobs, a good education and quality health care. We recognize that to 'secure the blessings of liberty' we must honor families, invest in our communities and safeguard the political rights of all our citizens."

The platform substantiates the rhetoric with specific commitments addressing housing; public education; support for families and children; health-care access; adult education and job training; workers' rights; support for small business; smart growth and environmental protection; public safety and criminal justice reform; a woman's right to choose; public transportation; fair taxes; civil liberties, etc.

As recently elected National Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean might say, the Massachusetts Party Platform "stands for something." Unfortunately, specific commitments make some party leaders nervous - probably the same folks who have been resisting efforts to implement a convention mandated "scorecard" comparing the votes of elected officials to the party platform.

The Democratic Party, at both the national and state levels, is in the midst of an identity crisis. On one side, there is a call for shedding some of the platform's more controversial planks, so as to reposition the party as a "bigger tent." On the other side, there is a call for candidates who will more assertively advocate for platform-endorsed policies, as opposed to trying to be all things to all people.

But pragmatism and consensus-building don't have to come at the expense of principled leadership. The November 2004 elections clearly refuted concerns that a bold and far-sighted party platform would hinder the election of Democratic candidates in Massachusetts. Two years after electing a Republican governor, voters defeated every one of the Republican challengers for open and Democrat-held seats in the Legislature.

Democrats should not be afraid of a detailed platform. If we hope to inspire voters, the worst thing our party could do would be to water down platform positions in order to placate opposing viewpoints. A public hungry for courageous leadership is tired of politicians who seem more concerned with avoiding controversy - or upsetting corporate donors - than with solving social problems. If they can't distinguish Democrats from Republicans, if politicians sound more like opportunists than opinion leaders, the voters we need on our side are all too likely to stay away from the polls.

The current platform, with a handful of updates and amendments, has the potential for serving as a roadmap to victory in 2006 and beyond. Democrats should resist efforts to replace it with a watered-down substitute that's heavy on platitudes and short on substance.

The closest platform committee hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, at the Central Square Public Library, 45 Pearl St., Cambridge. Comments by e-mail ( or mail (Platform Committee, c/o Massachusetts Democratic Party, 10 Granite St., Quincy, MA 02169) are due by March 10. Others hearings are listed at

( Fred Berman is a Ward 5 Somerville Democrat of Cherry Street and an active member of the Progressive Democrats of Somerville. )