Democratic convention platform debacle: How much will it matter?

The kerfuffle over the omission – and reinsertion – of references to God and Jerusalem may not seem like a big deal. But Republicans won't let it die anytime soon.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa calls for a vote to amend the platform at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

It’s a good thing for Democrats that former President Clinton gave such a memorable speech last night. Because in the absence of that, the biggest headline coming out of Wednesday might not have been a positive one.

We’re referring, of course, to the debacle over the party platform. Now this might seem like a tempest in a teapot – after all, who reads party platforms, anyway? But it was a big, fat gift to Republicans that could actually linger for a while (certainly, the right-wing blogosphere isn’t going to let it go away anytime soon).

For those who haven’t been following all the drama, the mess started Tuesday, when right-wing outlets noticed that this year’s Democratic platform for the first time did not include any references to God, or to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Never mind that the 2008 Democratic platform’s sole reference to God was a throwaway line about “God-given potential.” Or that this year’s Republican platform also seemed to soften its position on Jerusalem. (It did call Jerusalem “the capital of Israel,” but it dropped language from the 2008 platform calling for the US Embassy to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem). Republicans still pounced.

Democrats called the changes an unintentional “technical omission,” but were clearly thrown on the defensive. "If the narrative being presented on your station ... is the Democrats are godless people, they ought to know better," Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois blustered on Fox News. But of course, that's exactly the point: Republicans have exploited the image of Democrats as "godless" for decades – and in this case, Democrats gave them an opening to do it again.

On Wednesday – after President Obama himself reportedly personally intervened – Democrats decided to reinsert the references. That’s when it got worse. In a display of confusion that is undoubtedly already being made into a GOP attack ad, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided over a voice vote to change the platform language in which the “nays” actually seemed to outweigh the “yeas.” After three tries, Mr. Villaraigosa nevertheless went ahead and declared the vote passed by a “two-thirds majority” – at which point, he was booed.

So will any of this matter? Well, maybe.

Clearly, it is small potatoes compared with the one overriding issue in the race: the economy. But in a close election, small wedge issues can wind up tipping the scales. Already, Republicans have been making a big play to peel off support from Jewish voters, who, while a relatively tiny voting bloc, could still play a significant role in a state like Florida.

Likewise, in rust-belt states like Ohio and Michigan, cultural matters may hold more sway. For white, middle-class voters who were offended back in 2008 by Obama’s comments about "bitter" rural Americans who “cling to guns or religion,” this kerfuffle could reopen old wounds. 

Above all, it was a distracting sideshow, an unforced error on the part of Democrats that didn’t need to happen. The only question is how much it will cost them.

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