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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Birth of a Platform

At the 2008 Libertarian National Convention in Denver, the Platform debate opened Saturday morning with a motion from party founder David Nolan to suspend the rules.  His goal was to hold a 30-minute debate between representatives of the Platform Committee majority and the 6 to 7 signers of the series of Platform minority reports, followed by a one-shot vote between the Committee's Report and all 27 of the corresponding minority reports.   M Carling raised a point of information asking whether this would result in the delegates voting, like Congress, on texts they might not have read.  M's ingenious question pretty much answered itself, and the subsequent vote clearly failed to get the requisite 2/3.

The first plank was a verbatim restoration of the Omissions plank that Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick added to the Platform from the floor of the 1976 convention, and passed easily in the absence of a minority report.  The next plank was Representative Government, which matched up with a formidably moderate minority plank.  This represented a tactical mistake by the Committee majority, which had set the order of the planks to be considered.  The Committee decided at its February Vegas meeting to consider them in reverse order, since 1) the Portland crater is deeper in the areas of the later Vegas planks and 2) pushing planks onto the front of the Platform would minimize the amount of re-ordering that might be necessary in the event of only partial success.  On Thursday, the Committee used the results of the Chair's post-Vegas survey to move the 6 lowest-polling (i.e. most controversial) to the end of the line, in order to maximize the amount of Platform repair we could accomplish in the allotted floor time.  We could have instead ordered our report to frontload the planks with the most advantage over the corresponding minority planks, according to their verbosity or radicalness, but chose not to.

Rob Power, the Chair of the subcommittee that produced the minority reports, used his speaking time for this first plank to emphasize that the minority's retention of the Atlanta four-section format would expedite Platform repair.  (He didn't explain how a draft with four times as many words -- and ten times as much new language -- would require less time to debate and approve.)   M Carling then asked that Power should read the minority plank, just as Chair Alicia Mattson had read the entirety of the Committee's plank.  It was a risky gambit, as the minority plank was chock full of potential applause lines: voter-verifiable hardcopy ballots, IRV, repeal of BCRA, and abolition of the FEC.  However, Power seemed to realize that the length of this and the other minority planks was perhaps their biggest problem, and he raced through his plank like an auctioneer.  One random delegate on the floor later told me that the minority planks had lots of good content, but that content would be better in white papers and that our Platform shouldn't be the length of a "novel".

Then, in the course of about ten minutes around 11 A.M., the Committee plank won the plurality vote against the minority plank, and then the 2/3 vote for adoption.  This was a stunning turnaround from the rebuff that the delegates had Friday afternoon given to the reformers' proposal to remove from the Statement of Principles the "cult of the omnipotent state" language.  As the day continued, it became clear that while the delegates had no interest in a procedural maneuver to tweak our SoP, they were very interested in securing a repaired comprehensive Platform that can unite Libertarians around our common principles and present them clearly and forcefully to the American people.

On the next plank we reformers caught some good fortune.  The minority had about four planks in their draft that didn't quite match up with the planks in ours, so against our Rights and Discrimination plank they offered a plank on labor law.  LP Chair Bill Redpath put it to the delegates to decide whether the minority plank was germane, and the delegates easily voted no.  At this point, there was a flurry of conferring on the floor among leaders of the Reform Caucus, the PlatCom minority, and the Restoration ("Restore04") Caucus.  Several of the minority signers were preparing to withdraw the remaining minority reports, but David Nolan wanted to include in the deal a suspension of the new rule that planks can only be amended from the floor if they fail the initial up-or-down vote.  The reform leaders declined, confident that the delegates were in no mood to spend time on a series of minority planks that were clearly not going to be chosen as the basis for debate (let alone adopted over the 2/3 threshold).  After the minority conferred with Power, they won a motion to withdraw the rest of their minority reports.

One PlatCom reformer, Jon Roland, then made a motion  to suspend the rules which the secretary entered into the on-screen minutes as "Jon Roland pulls the trigger".  He moved for 1) omnibus adoption of the remaining Committee planks, 2) votes on deletion of new planks the delegates don't want, 3) deletion of redundant legacy planks, and 4) an opportunity for amendments to the new planks. After some wrangling, the delegates narrowly failed to give any aspect of Roland's proposal the needed 2/3 vote.  The delegates perhaps were more confident than we PlatCommers that they could process the workload we had set before them.  We recessed for lunch with only 5 of PlatCom's 27 planks adopted, but the convention was poised to come out of the gates fast when business resumed at 2:45.

There was, however, another little dust-up over credentials, due to a handful of paranoiatarians spreading rumors of delegation packing.  When Platform work resumed, the pace was breathtaking.  The delegates wanted to get the Platform fixed, and had no tolerance for debating any of the new planks that didn't have any obvious flaws.  One of the first planks to win some debate time was Money and Financial Markets, and an exasperated Starchild stepped to a microphone.  In his familiar Statue of Liberty costume, he used nearly half of the 15 minutes of available debate time to plead for a more detailed platform, even as he conceded that this particular plank was solidly libertarian.  My sense was that his speech sank the last hopes for any radical delaying action against the Pure Principles steamroller, as his speech encapsulated all that was wrong with the pre-Portland approach to the Platform: too long-winded, and elevating iconoclasm to the level of principle.

The delegates slowed down only enough to make good tweaks to the gay rights plank and the financial markets plank, but by 4:30 we still needed to tackle abortion, immigration and secession before we could throw out the now-redundant 2006 platform elements. It quickly became apparent that the delegates were unhappy with the PlatCom's take-no-position abortion plank, but the ensuing 20 minutes of sound and fury and a hardcore pro-choice motion left us no closer to resolution.  With little more than an hour left to finish the job of Platform repair, Aaron Starr put on his hard hat.  He proposed a line from the 2006 abortion plank that I confess I'd rejected as just too coy, but it ended up saving the day: "Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on both sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration." (Starr changed "both" to "all" after Carling had earlier noted there is an entire spectrum of opinions on abortion.)

As a bonus, Starr's proposal directly amended the existing 2006 abortion plank instead of passing a new plank, which put the body in a mood to start clearing the decks of the old platform planks.  Mattson then moved to suspend the rules and drop all the old platform planks and section introductions, except for the drug war.  This provided a perfect example of reform opponents not understanding how to use the rules.  The en masse deletion required a 2/3 vote, but leaving the drug war deletion recommendation separate (as they had insisted) meant that it only required a majority.  When that recommendation came up a little later, their drug war plank went down to defeat, though its inclusion in the omnibus motion might have denied the motion its 2/3 margin. (The recommendation might still have come up for a vote later, but it would have taken a 2/3 vote to skip other business to get to it.)

With ten minutes left, we still had to consider two of our most traditionally controversial planks, on immigration and secession.  However, the PlatCom had renamed Immigration to Free Trade And Migration, and Secession to Self-Determination.  The proposed immigration plank preserved the compromise language crafted in 2006, and sailed through with ease.  The delegates saw the finish line, and began to sprint.  Steve Dasbach took the podium to introduce the final plank, and noted that while it was not recycled from any past LP platform, the delegates might recognize its source.  It said: "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of individual liberty, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to agree to such new governance as to them shall seem most likely to protect their liberty."  Nick Sarwark -- my prediction for the first Libertarian President of the United States -- said that this plank is so good it's really the only one the Platform needs.  When Redpath asked if there were any objection to proceeding straight to a vote, the few objectors were met with thunderous boos.  The Self-Determination plank that I had adapted from Jefferson was then approved by perhaps the loudest and clearest margin of any plank all day, just as time ran out.

The platform the delegates adopted was considerably better than the first draft I had pasted together on a Friday evening 14 months earlier.  It had undergone many small but critical improvements over that entire period, suggested by various Party members inside the Reform Caucus and out, by members of the Directional Principles subcommittee, and by the rest of PlatCom.  It was Bylaws Chair M Carling who saw before I did that the key to adoption was to always aim for 100% recycled content, even if we couldn't quite attain it.  Platform Chair Alicia Mattson had both the parliamentary expertise and tireless determination needed to herd the PlatCom cats, as well as the charm at the podium to win the hearts and minds of delegates who barely 12 hours earlier had rejected our Statement of Principles proposal.  Bob Capozzi was the indefatigable diplomat on the reformer side, never losing his cool as he answered radical arguments while acknowledging the validity of the radical perspective.  Steve Dasbach stepped in at crucial impasses between the reformers and radicals, including at a tense juncture the first morning in Vegas.  PlatCom's Texas constitutionalism caucus, Jon Roland and Guy McLendon, started working on platform reform back on the 2006 PlatCom, and kept at it right through to Denver, crucially helping to staff up our Reform Caucus booth with both paid help and the hard-working teenager Schuyler "Rocky" Reidel. Other reform workhorses on PlatCom were David Aitken, Donny Ferguson, Audrey Capozzi, Hardy Macia, and Steve Burden.  Some more long-time reformistas were in Denver in spirit after having passed the baton: Carl Milsted, Bernard Carman, Tim West, and Tim Crowley.

The repaired Platform is also a monument to the PlatCom radicals who remained constructive throughout the process.  Henry Haller probably had more influence than anybody else on the changes to the platform draft over the last fourteen months.  Daniel Grow was the hardest-working generator of alternative proposals, but his opposition to our draft only helped improve it as we raided language he unearthed from earlier platforms.  Bonnie Scott is as much a member of the "Brevity Caucus" as she is of the Radical Caucus, and she worked hard with Adam Mayer to construct our new Environment plank.

Of course, the real heroes of this story were the Denver delegates themselves.  They saw what needed to be done, they saw how little time there was to do it, and so they rolled up their sleeves and Just Did it.  The Denver delegates made this convention The One.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The One? The Oath remains. Mechanical squids could descend at any time...