If a political platform is a party's contract with the people, as Harry Truman said, it is a contract commonly honored in the breach. The Carter administration, to take the latest instance, has departed from such clauses of the 1976 Democratic platform as cutting military spending.
If not really a contract, a platform should nevertheless convey a party's general tone and attitude. Even if promises are not kept, it is of some voter interest to know what kind of promises a party considers important.
So Senator Kennedy, whatever his personal political intentions, raises a root question when he charges the proposed new Democratic platform is "Democratic only in name." He is right -- if his alternative proposals are the truly Democratic ones. The question is whether the party as represented at the convention will go along with his version of Democratic-ness or the version as agreed on by a Carter-dominated platform committee.
Suppose the committee had accepted such Kennedy proposals as these: a freeze on wages and prices, a return to controls on oil and gas prices, a national reindustrialization corporation, a $12 billion antirecessionary employment program, a pledge not to take any action whose effect will be a significant rise in unemployment. There would be no doubt that this was the Democratic Party speaking as it has been known in most of recent history. Voters would face a choice not an echo, as Republicans used to say when trying to resist me-too programs under Democratic administrations.
The irony with at least part of the platform committee's handiwork is that it sounds like me-too following the party that is outm of power. The call for "compassion with self-discipline," for example -- who from either party could fail to subscribe to that? But it seems more in the tone of the 1976 Republican platform than that of the Democrats' commitment then to a fairer distribution of income and wealth.
Of course, it is one of the strengths of the American version of the two-party system that the parties are not rigidly at ideological odds. Each is to some extent a coalition adding up to a tempering of extremes, an achieved center that can shift over the years.
Is the center of the Democratic Party shifting to the right, as the Carter approach suggests? Or does candidate Kennedy know something about the party the President doesn't know? The convention should be interesting.