Democrats shape platform. The party is walking a fine line between accommodating influential constituencies - such as blacks under the leadership of Jesse Jackson - and appearing to cater to `special interests.'
Washington — Will the Democratic Party continue to be pushed around by special-interest groups? Party leaders would like to answer that question with a resounding ``No!'' But, as in previous elections, pressures are mounting to turn the Democratic platform into a ``wish list'' for activist groups. The strongest pressure will come from black groups, who by virtue of Jesse Jackson's electoral successes have earned the right to make significant demands on the platform.
``If the platform doesn't really represent and reflect the needs of black America,'' says Dr. Douglas Glasgow of the National Urban League, ``[the party] will have more than problems on the convention floor. ... They will have difficulty in the election.''
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People submitted a 12-point program to the platform committee last week that includes calls for sanctions against South Africa, affirmative action quotas, national health insurance, and a commission on racially motivated violence. In the platform hearings the NAACP and the Urban League were joined by other special-interest groups, all pursuing their own agenda.
Paul Kirk, chairman of the Democratic National Committee has said he would like the platform to be rather generic, relying on a statement of principles rather than the plethora of specific proposals listed in the past. Walter E. Fauntroy, the Jackson campaign's representative on the platform committee, agrees with Mr. Kirk, to a point.
``The platform should not only state the principles ... but also carry with it constructive examples of what a Democratic administration would in fact do,'' says Mr. Fauntroy, Washington, D.C.'s delegate to the House of Representatives.
Original fears that the Jackson campaign would support a host of special-interest demands similar to those included in the 1980 and '84 platforms may not be justified.
``The experience of the party has been,'' Fauntroy says, ``that when you have a shopping list of interest-group issues, it presents the opposition ... with the tools to organize [voters] who are opposed to [those] positions.'' Rather than focus on narrow and short-term goals, ``the prize is the presidency and a Democratic administration in power.''
The campaign of Gov. Michael Dukakis is also very concerned about the contents of the platform. As the party's likely nominee, Mr. Dukakis doesn't want to be saddled with a lot of special-interest political baggage he has so deftly avoided throughout the primaries. Since his delegates to the convention will have to approve the platform, his campaign will be very influential in the platform's development.
``I really believe that there is a balance that can be struck that reaches the goal [of keeping the platform simpler] and also accommodates the desire [by the Jackson campaign] to see some degree of specificity,'' says former Congressman Michael Barnes, Dukakis's representative on the platform committee. ``You don't have to ... provide a listing of the utmost dreams of every organization in the country,'' he says. ``That is our campaign's objective.''
Democratic activists agree that a convention fight over the platform is not in the party's best interests. ``I would think that this year especially ... that we ought to keep it as noncontroversial as is possible, not to tear ourselves up in the platform discussions,'' says political consultant Matt Reese. ``Our appearing to cater to special interests is not helpful in election campaigns,'' he adds.
Mr. Fauntroy plans to deliver a list of principles and related examples to the platform committee later this week. They will be specific enough, he says, to appeal to those ``people who are our margin of potential victory.'' For instance, he said Jackson's supporters ``will perk up'' when they see a plank on housing followed up with a specific goal of restoring the 70 percent cuts the Reagan administration made in subsidized housing programs.
In addition to their specific demands, the Jackson campaign wants ``to link the candidacy'' to the platform. ``The general habit has been to adopt a laundry list platform and then forget it and let the candidate run on whatever he wants to run on,'' Fauntroy says. ``We would like to see something different.''
To help Dukakis and other Democratic candidates feel comfortable with the platform, extremely controversial issues - such as abortion - should be kept off, he says.
``I would hope that we could get to a compromise,'' says Rep. Thomas Foley of Washington, the majority leader in the House of Representatives, ``so that we don't have a long recitation of every position that every part of the party wants to have included.'' The pressure tends to mount, he says, because special-interest groups operate ``on the theory that if you were excluded you were somehow ignored.''
``It becomes kind of a political catechism for both parties,'' Representative Foley continues. Even though he would prefer a ``more pithy and more readable'' platform, he says he is ``prepared to be disappointed.''
Mr. Barnes, although optimistic about a compromise with the Jackson campaign, isn't so sure all the other groups can be held at bay. ``We've been through this before. And in the past the pressures have always been too great to resist.''