Unity Won't Come Easily for Democrats

The people Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders picked to help draft the Democratic Party platform highlight a divide between the candidates.

Morry Gash / AP

It looks like Bernie Sanders’s political agitation is paying off.

The Democratic National Convention Committee announced the 15 members of its platform drafting committee on Monday, a selection designed to give the Vermont senator an unusual amount of influence on the process. As The Washington Post reported, “party leaders hope [the move] will soothe a bitter split with backers of the long-shot challenger to Hillary Clinton.” Sanders has been allowed to name five members to the committee charged with writing the party platform, while Clinton named six. The tally reflects the fact that Clinton leads Sanders in the popular vote for the presidential primary election, but nevertheless grants Sanders allies a significant amount of input.

The announcement could mark the start of a reconciliation of sorts between Sanders and the Democratic establishment. Protests over the outcome of the Nevada Democratic convention, a process that Sanders and his supporters described as unfair, have recently escalated tensions. Sanders’s decision to endorse a primary challenger to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also raised questions over how far the senator will take his fight against party elites. Fears that divisions might deepen likely motivated Democratic Party leaders to grant Sanders substantial representation on the drafting committee.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more contentiousness. The makeup of the committee itself illustrates the stark divide between the two candidates, according to the Post’s rundown of the roster. Clinton has a reputation as a party insider with deep ties to the Democratic establishment, while Sanders is known as an agitator unafraid to challenge political norms. Their representatives on the platform-drafting committee seem to fit that same mold, potentially setting up a clash over style and substance.

Sanders’s selections include several progressive firebrands. Among them are Bill McKibben, an outspoken climate activist who has not been afraid to criticize President Obama’s administration for failing to do enough to stop climate change; James Zogby, a prominent researcher and pro-Palestinian activist; and Cornel West, an activist and intellectual who once summed up the Obama administration as “a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency” in an interview with Salon. The Vermont senator has also named Keith Ellison, a Democratic representative from Minnesota and a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Deborah Parker, a Native American activist, to the panel.

For her slate of representatives, Clinton picked a number of individuals who have served as high-ranking officials in Democratic administrations, held elected office as Democrats, or wield institutional power on the political left in Washington. Wendy Sherman and Carol Browner both served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Alicia Reece and Luis Gutierrez are both Democratic politicians and will also serve as Clinton envoys. Neera Tanden is the president of the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by John Podesta, the current chairman of the Clinton campaign, will also work to help draft the platform. Clinton also named Paul Booth of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union to the panel.

Consider the difference in political styles of Bill McKibben and Carol Browner. McKibben, set to represent Sanders, is the founder of progressive grassroots environmental group 350.org. He accused Obama of “catastrophic climate-change denial” after the administration green-lit Arctic drilling for Shell Oil, and has been one of the most forceful voices attempting to push the president to adopt a more aggressive stand on combating climate change.

Browner, who will represent Clinton, is also renowned as an environmental leader, but of an entirely different sort. While McKibben agitates outside the White House, and has even been arrested there while protesting the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline. Browner, on the other hand, has worked on environmental issues inside the White House. She served as Obama’s “energy and climate czar,” a role where she attempted to help pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation, an effort that ultimately fell flat amid opposition in Congress. Before that, she served as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President Bill Clinton. McKibben and Browner may both agree that climate change is an urgent threat, but the way they have approached the issue over the course of their careers could not be more different.

Both campaigns responded enthusiastically to news of the committee’s makeup on Monday. In a statement, Sanders said he believes “we will have the representation on the platform drafting committee to create a Democratic platform that reflects the views of millions of our supporters.” A Clinton spokesperson said the campaign was “pleased that the upcoming Democratic convention will ensure supporters of Senator Sanders are well represented in the drafting of the party’s platform,” according to CNN.

The formation of the committee may be a crucial step toward Democratic unity, but in the short term, policy disputes are virtually guaranteed to emerge. The different political styles of the various members of the group are likely to create tension, if not outright discord. In a possible sign of what’s to come, Sanders himself predicted that the convention in Philadelphia this summer could get “messy,” in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday. “Democracy is not always nice and quiet and gentle,” he warned.