On July 27 I attended a "Listening to America" meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland. The meeting, held at a local coffeehouse, was held to gather local consensus positions for the Democratic party platform .
I had been alerted to the meeting -- sponsored by the Democratic Party and Obama presidential campaign -- by the people at "GetFISARight.net," an online group dedicated to opposing the FISA Amendment Act passed in July. So I went with a fistful of fliers proposing platform planks dedicated to reversing this and other erosions of constitutional rights in the past eight years.
I found no argument at the meeting, and much agreement, so that one of the "GetFISARight" planks could be folded in to a broad set of planks under the rubric "Rebuilding and Reclaiming Our Basic Rights." In the slightly rearranged and polished result that was circulated to attendees late last week as a report of the Platform Meeting local organizers, the passage read:
* It is critical to repeal or substantially amend laws that violate constitutionally guaranteed rights, including the Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments law, the Military Commissions Act, related executive orders, and executive signing statements. We must endeavor to replace these with laws that reaffirm our fundamental rights and hold accountable all parties who violate those rights.
Thus, as can be seen by comparison with the original flier version, the "GetFISARight" language (the 2d bullet point in that flier) was reported back in essentially verbatim form, as were other points asserting that health care, education, a living wage, and housing were basic human rights. Similarly, language from a second focus group concerned with energy, global warming, economic and immigration challenges was accurately conveyed back to meeting attendees.
Likewise, I'm pleased to say, a great deal of the gist of this message has emerged in the "Draft 2008 Democratic National Platform" presented by the Platform Drafting Committee chaired by Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. Turning to pages 48-50 of that document, even the phrase "Reclaiming" is used in the title of the relevant section, "Reclaiming our Constitution and Our Liberties" showing at very least that great minds think alike.
There are more specific echoes of the Silver Spring document and "GetFISARight" language as well (emphases added to highlight similarities; line numbering removed):
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 wire-tapping of American citizens.
We reject the use of national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. We reject the tracking of citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. We reject torture. 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.
While this is an excellent passage in an excellent section, honesty compels me to note that this drops the specific Silver Spring/GetFISARight plank to "repeal or substantially amend... the FISA Amendments law, the Military Commissions Act [MCA]..."; I found no specific references to either law in the Draft Platform. Likewise, the notion of accountability for past human rights and civil liberties violators in this country seems to be absent from the platform, even as other sections (rightly) seek improved human rights enforcement overseas by others.
Similarly, the Silver Spring refrain of "basic human rights" is not in the Draft Platform, nor is the reference to FDR's "Four Freedoms" which seemed to us to encompass both civil liberties and the right to "freedom from want" for health care, housing, a living wage, or education. That's not to say these issues aren't addressed -- sections on "Good Jobs with Good Pay," "Affordable, Quality Health Care," "A World Class Education for Every Child," and "Housing" are extensive and eloquent -- just that they are not addressed as rights, but usually simply as a blend of sound policies and heartfelt common sense.
It's true that I personally might have liked more specific pledges for, say, legislative rollback of the Bush era assault on the Constitution, or for legislative, executive, and ultimately judicial reexamination of the Bush years. On the other hand, this draft platform does reflect much of what I -- and, I think, others at the meeting -- were looking and hoping for. For my part, I find a good deal to hope for from a party platform that includes this:
Our Constitution is not a nuisance. It is the foundation of our democracy. It makes freedom and self-governance possible, and helps to protect our security. The Democratic Party will restore our Constitution to its proper place in our government and return our Nation to our best traditions-including our commitment to government by law, and not by men.
So say we all, I hope, this November.