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Democratic Platform Set in the Middle of the Road

Document reflects shift to center, from expanding trade to a limited national missile defense system. But liberals will get plenty of podium time.


The Democratic platform, the party's election-year statement of its agenda for the nation, this year continues a march from liberal orthodoxy to the political center that has been the hallmark of the Clinton era.

Despite some modest concessions to the party's traditional liberal interests, the platform that will be approved by the convention Tuesday is a monument to how much the Clinton administration has shifted the party on key issues.

Once accused of being a bastion of tax-and-spend liberalism, Democrats in their platform now give priority to eliminating the national debt.

The party that was once thick with Vietnam-era doves and nuclear freeze crusaders now endorses development of a limited national missile defense system.

The platform includes hosannas to free trade, the death penalty and stricter standards for teachers--all points of irritation to liberal Democratic constituencies. The document even brags about reducing the size of government to the smallest it's been since the 1950s.

The Democratic move to the center parallels the effort by Republicans at their convention two weeks ago to put a more moderate face on the GOP.

To that end, Republicans kept their most conservative members away from televised proceedings. But they kept important commitments to their core conservative supporters in the platform--with full-throated support for big tax cuts, missile defense, gun owners' rights and restrictions on abortion.

Democrats, by contrast, are giving their liberal base plenty of podium time. Tuesday night's program, a veritable nostalgia tour of the left, includes advocates of gay rights, abortion rights and organized labor, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the man whose name is synonymous with liberalism, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The platform, to be sure, contains perennials for the party's base--support for abortion rights, gun control and gay rights among them.

But other planks give heartburn to the party's beleaguered liberal wing, who pushed unsuccessfully for stronger language on providing universal health care, dropping any endorsement of missile defenses and endorsing more protections for U.S. workers in trade policy.

"The message seems to be that the prosperity of the last eight years will continue for all Americans but only if we support the status quo," said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). "Many of us find that a vexing message."

This year's platform, like most, was cobbled together in a process almost completely controlled by Democratic presidential nominee-to-be Al Gore and his lieutenants. As such, it celebrates the accomplishments of eight years of Clinton-Gore and builds squarely on the foundation of centrism laid by the administration.

On fiscal policy, the platform continues Clinton's drive to replace the party's tax-and-spend label with the banner of fiscal conservatism. Reflecting the new reality of a federal budget surplus, it calls for using some of that revenue to wipe out the publicly held national debt by 2012.

"We can never take our economic prosperity for granted, nor can we afford to go back to either tax-and-spend or cut-and-run--the failed policies of the past," the platform says.

At a time when congressional Republicans have spotlighted their bids to cut taxes on married couples and inheritances, Democrats have a plank hailing their own achievements as tax cutters--on a smaller scale.

On education, the platform builds on Clinton's efforts to increase teacher accountability. Challenging the cherished tradition of job security for educators, the platform includes a new plank calling for periodic reviews of teaching licenses.

"At its best, teaching is the job of a lifetime," the platform says. "But teaching contracts and licenses should not be an automatic lifetime guarantee."

The platform also takes a slap at Hollywood in calling for less sex and violence in youth entertainment.

And it endorses development of technology for a limited national missile defense system, a version of the Reagan "Star Wars" project that Democrats for years derided as unworkable.

Still, for all these thrusts to the center, the platform includes some concessions to the party's core constituencies.

While again endorsing the death penalty--defying liberals who wanted to call for a moratorium on capital punishment--the platform adds new language calling for DNA testing in "all appropriate circumstances."

On gay rights, the platform includes a more specific endorsement of anti-discrimination efforts. "We support the full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of the nation," the document says.

Nowhere did platform writers work more strenuously to balance the demands of traditional constituencies against Gore's centrist party line than in the plank on trade.

Clinton and Gore have been at odds with organized labor in their push for expanding world trade. Indeed, some unions have been slow to endorse Gore over the issue.

The platform includes a newly robust statement of the importance of trade to economic growth. "It's clear we live in a globalized world--and that there is no turning back," it says.

To appease labor unions, language was added that says the next president should include provisions for worker rights, human rights and environmental protections in future trade agreements.

That was enough to keep the unions on board. "This is not the document we would write," said Gerald Shea, a top official of the AFL-CIO who sat on the platform committee. "And maybe if our members had their druthers, it would be a different ticket. But the choice they've got is [Gore] and [Republican George W. Bush]. We hope people in the end see this as a no-brainer."

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