Will Democrats Strip Civil Liberties from Their 2012 Platform?

The 2008 document is at direct odds with how President Obama has governed. Changing it or leaving it the same would both be awkward.

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When the Democratic Party holds its convention this September in Charlotte, North Carolina, President Obama's speech is likely to garner the most press attention. But I'll be most interested in how the delegates get themselves out of the pickle of their standard bearer's making: What are they going to say about civil liberties and executive power in the party platform?

Four years ago, the last time the Democrats adopted a platform, their presidential candidate
championed civil liberties, insisted that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay would make us safer from terrorists, and righteously denounced the expansive Bush-Cheney understanding of executive power. Said the official 2008 platform contemporaneously adopted by Democratic delegates (links added):

We will restore our constitutional traditions, and recover our nation's founding commitment to liberty under law. We support constitutional protections and judicial oversight on any surveillance program involving Americans. We will review the current Administration's warrantless wiretapping program. We reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens, wherever they live. We reject the use of national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime ... We reject sweeping claims of "inherent" presidential power. We will revisit the Patriot Act and overturn unconstitutional executive decisions issued during the past eight years. We will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine duly enacted law. And we will ensure that law-abiding Americans of any origin, including Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, do not become the scapegoats of national security fears.

Another section is also pertinent:

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 ... we will lead in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people. We will not ship away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, or detain without trial or charge prisoners who can and should be brought to justice for their crimes, or maintain a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law. We will respect the time-honored principle of habeas corpus, the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention that was recently reaffirmed by our Supreme Court.

We will close the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, the location of so many of the worst constitutional abuses in recent years. With these necessary changes, the attention of the world will be directed where it belongs: on what terrorists have done to us, not on how we treat suspects.

If you click through to the links I've embedded above you'll quickly get a sense of how thoroughly President Obama has betrayed the words and spirit of his candidacy and his party's platform. 

So what now?

As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein put it:
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?
It's an uncomfortable choice: either betray your principles and accept the Bush-Cheney-Obama approach to the War on Terror, or else highlight in a minor way how your standard-bearer has betrayed the principles on which he ran and adopted so many of the policies he once criticized. Either way, the wording of the 2012 Democratic Party Platform won't escape scrutiny.

I'll be watching. And I hope Democrats who still care about these issues use the opportunity to make themselves heard.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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