Controversy erupted at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday when party leaders forced through a platform change to reinstate references to God and the view that Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital. The language in question was included in 2008, but was left out when delegates approved their 2012 platform earlier this week. At the reported behest of President Obama, DNC chair and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presided over a voice vote to reinstate the references through a two-thirds majority. Villaraigosa appeared prepared to automatically accept the change, but those voting "no" were so loud that he ended up holding the vote three times. We’re joined by James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute and a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention. We also hear from New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler; Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress; and Michigan Democratic delegate Ismael Ahmed. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We are "Breaking With Convention." This is "War, Peace and the Presidency," covering the Democratic convention, inside and out. I’m Amy Goodman. The 2012 Democratic National Convention has entered its third day here in Charlotte. President Obama arrived here last night and is scheduled to accept his party’s nomination for a second presidential term tonight.
Democratic delegates held a surprise voice vote on the party platform yesterday afternoon. The convention invoked God and reinstated language from the 2008 platform describing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In confusing scenes in the first moments of the convention proceedings on Wednesday, when many delegates were not present, a vote on the language was called three times, because of the large number of voices both for and against the motion. Despite loud objections from the audience, convention chair, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said he determined that two-thirds of delegates had voted in favor of the proposed changes. This is [Ted] Strickland, former Ohio governor and chair of the party’s platform [drafting] committee.
TED STRICKLAND: This summer, I was proud to serve this party as the platform drafting committee chair. As the chair, I come before you today to discuss two important matters related to our party’s national platform. As an ordained United Methodist minister, I am here to attest and affirm that our faith and belief in God is central to the American story and informs the values we’ve expressed in our party’s platform. In addition, President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and our party’s platform should, as well. Mr. Chairman, I have submitted my amendment in writing, and I believe it is being projected on the screen for the delegates to see. I move adoption of the amendment as submitted and shown to the delegates.
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: A motion has been made. Is there a second? Is there any further discussion? Hearing none, the matter requires a two-thirds vote in the affirmative. All those delegates in favor, say "aye."
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: All those delegates opposed, say "no."
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: In the opinion of the—let me do that again. All of those delegates in favor, say "aye."
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: All those delegates opposed, say "no."
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I—I guess—
UNIDENTIFIED: You’ve got to rule, and then you’ve got to let them do what they’re going to do.
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I’ll do that one more time. All those delegates in favor, say "aye. "
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: All those delegates opposed, say "no."
MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds have voted in the affirmative. The motion is adopted, and the platform has been amended as shown on the screen.
AMY GOODMAN: That was convention chair and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announcing the results of the surprise voice vote held on Wednesday afternoon at the Democratic National Committee. The Democratic Party had faced mounting criticism from Republican nominee Mitt Romney and others for omitting the reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan said, quote, "This is tragic. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Mitt Romney and I are very clear on this. ... What is so tragic about this is that this is one of the few issues where the Republican Party and the Democratic Party agreed," Paul Ryan said. Reports emerged shortly afterwards that President Obama had personally intervened to change the platform’s language back.
Well, to talk more about the significance of the vote, we’re joined now by James Zogby. He’s the president of the Arab American Institute, and he’s a superdelegate here at the Democratic National Convention, also a member of the convention’s platform committee.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
JAMES ZOGBY: No cape, though. Superdelegate, but I don’t fly, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: OK. What does "superdelegate" mean exactly?
JAMES ZOGBY: It means we’re members of the Democratic National Committee, and we become automatic delegates to the convention.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you explain what took place yesterday afternoon, to the shock of people, I think, both in the convention center as well as people watching on television?
JAMES ZOGBY: Look, I’ve been dealing with platforms on the Middle East on this issue now for almost 30 years. They run scared, like Chicken Little, any time somebody raises a peep about the issue. I think, you know, the mounting criticism came from Republicans, and then from the predictable characters in the Democratic Congress. Frankly, the platform was just fine, and it should have made the Israeli side very happy. The new language coming from 2008 is so inconsequential that—and so vague.
AMY GOODMAN: It started in 2008?
JAMES ZOGBY: No, no, no. They’ve actually had some language on Jerusalem. Other language, they dropped. Really offensive language about refugees, etc., they dropped, thank God. But the Jerusalem language is rather vague and inconsequential. And so, the notion of adding it and solving a problem, it doesn’t mean anything. What they’ve done is, they’ve frankly dumped on their own convention. I mean, today, we’re talking about this. We ought to be talking about Bill Clinton’s speech. And that was a huge blunder. I think it was a—not thought through. You can see from Villaraigosa’s face as he gets out there that—you know, what’s going on here? And three votes. At some point—
AMY GOODMAN: Because he could not figure out—I mean, how you determine—
JAMES ZOGBY: At some point—
AMY GOODMAN: —two-thirds of the delegates? Also, how many of the delegates were even there?
JAMES ZOGBY: They just assumed it was going to be a slam dunk, everyone was going to go. We’ve polled in the Democratic Party. Most Democrats do not support these positions. We’ve known this now for decades. And the fact is, is that they just should let it go, because raising it now means we’ll be talking about this for days yet to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain how it came out. It was in the platform in 2008. And then, what happened in 2012?
JAMES ZOGBY: Don’t know. They took some heat for the language of 2008, because, frankly, the president is supposed to be negotiating a peace process or involved in that. And the 2008 platform predetermined many of the issues of the negotiations about refugees and borders, etc. Wiser minds, I suppose, prevailed. So when we looked at the draft—and everyone looked at the draft. AIPAC and everyone saw the draft. The draft had language that was very supportive of Israel on the security and defense front, supportive of Israel on the—Israel is the—you know, our ally, etc., etc. And then it eliminated some of these predetermining of negotiated issues, like borders in Jerusalem, etc. Why now, after Romney complains and Paul Ryan? I didn’t know that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan wrote the Democratic Party platform. They didn’t have a voice. They weren’t on our committee. And yet, they reacted scared and did what sometimes the party does, which is make a mistake out of fear.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Democratic Congressmember Jerrold Nadler. Democracy Now! producer Mike Burke interviewed him inside the convention last night and asked him about the change in the platform and this extremely irregular vote—
JAMES ZOGBY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —that took place yesterday afternoon.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: I’m very glad we did that. It was never a substantive issue, but it was entirely a political issue. And there’s no reason to open up a huge debate over—over a non-substantive issue. The fact of the matter is, it’s been the policy of this administration, and every prior administration going back I don’t know how many years, that the status of Jerusalem is what’s called the "final status issue." That means it’s supposed to be negotiated between the parties—that is, the Palestinians and the Israelis—before an agreement, and they both have to agree to it, which is a practical matter. Since Israel will never believe that Jerusalem isn’t its capital, Jerusalem is going to be its capital. Now, that does not mean, as several—as any number of schemes have said, that part of Jerusalem might not be the Palestinian capital also, and there might be shared—all kinds of arrangements which have been discussed from time to time.
But to get into a fight over omitting language that says that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, which has been in previous platforms, and—is silly, because the practical consequences are zero. The reality is that the platform says and said, both the prior platform and the current platform, that we’d have a two-state—that we want a two-state solution with agreed-upon borders and so forth. And that means, as a practical matter, that—and again, since Jerusalem is a final status issue and everybody agrees on it, it’s got to be agreed upon. So, whether you have that language in the platform or not makes a political difference, because people are looking to try to make differences where there aren’t any, to try to make political points. But it has no practical significance. So there’s no point having a fight and giving the Republicans ammunition over something that’s meaningless.
MIKE BURKE: Now, what is the process? How was the platform drafted?
REP. JERROLD NADLER: I don’t know. I mean, technically, I mean, there’s a platform drafting committee, and they hold hearings, and they draft. And I suppose there’s supposed to be a vote by the platform committee. And there could be minority and majority reports, which there weren’t, on this or anything else. But I didn’t hear about any of this. No one I knew heard about it 'til 5:00 yesterday. And the platform was printed and distributed on the seats. I'm not sure what the mechanism of changing it was. Now, technically, I mean, the rules that I read—and they may only have been summaries of rules—say that the platform committee can present majority-minority reports, the convention can vote on it. It doesn’t say anything about bringing up a new version from the floor. So, I’m not sure—now, they could have moved to suspend the rules. I’m not sure how it was done. But the whole thing—but the platform itself was adopted yesterday when no one was paying attention, and the amendment was passed when no one was paying attention. Not the most democratic of procedures.
MIKE BURKE: Now, when it comes to, you know, the issue of Israel and Palestine, where do you see the differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney?
REP. JERROLD NADLER: That’s very difficult to say, because it depends on what Mitt Romney really means, which one doesn’t know. Certainly, the president agrees that we ought to have a—that we have a negotiated two-state solution, that the boundaries of the two states are final status issues that should be negotiated and agreed upon. I presume, if asked, Romney would say the same thing. But no one’s talking about that very much. I mean, Romney just keeps saying the president is throwing Israel under the bus, without specifically—without saying specifically what he’s talking about. So, one really doesn’t know. And no one is really talking about the parameters of negotiations, because, unfortunately, there do not seem to be any great prospects for negotiations in the immediate future. And the more immediate issues are Iran’s nuclear—or presumed or potential nuclear capability, Hamas shooting rockets into Israel, the United States supplying defenses to that, military aid, intelligence aid and all those sorts of things, all of which Obama has been, from a pro-Israeli point of view, very strong.
MIKE BURKE: Now, I know a few hours ago there was a protest outside the Levine Museum of the New South. There was an AIPAC gathering inside. CODEPINK and several other groups were—
REP. JERROLD NADLER: I’m sorry. What?
MIKE BURKE: There was an AIPAC gathering at the museum.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: Yeah, I heard that.
MIKE BURKE: And there was a protest outside. The protesters were saying that AIPAC has too much sway on policy in Washington.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: Well, they’re entitled to their opinion. I don’t know that that’s true. I mean, AIPAC has—AIPAC has swayed to the extent that it voices opinions which most people and most policymakers agree with in the first place, in general terms. And AIPAC—now, there’s a dispute over whether AIPAC knew about this platform change and—the change, that is, from four years ago. The change that was in yesterday is a document and agreed on it or not. Some people said they were—that their people were present in the public drafting sessions, which were all public, and that they didn’t raise any objection. Somebody, who’s quoted in the Washington Post, from AIPAC is saying that’s not true. So I don’t know.
MIKE BURKE: All right. I’m sure you’re busy.
REP. JERROLD NADLER: But let me say just one thing about AIPAC. AIPAC is a lobbying agency, representing a lot of American citizens. It is not a—despite its name, it’s not a PAC—doesn’t contribute—it’s "Public Action Committee," not "political action committee." It doesn’t give out campaign contributions or anything. But it does represent the views of a lot of people, and it has a certain amount of political sway. But it’s a—it’s a standard lobbying operation, grassroots lobbying operation, representing a lot of people. And it would have no strength to the extent that people disagreed with it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Jerrold Nadler on the floor of the Democratic convention, interviewed by Democracy Now!’s Mike Burke. Well, last night, also on the floor of the convention, I ran into Congressmember Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, the first Muslim elected to Congress. I asked him to respond to the vote on changing the platform to include language that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
REP. KEITH ELLISON: Quite frankly, this is a final status issue, which should be negotiated between the parties. And I don’t know if it’s the proper place, in a Democratic or Republican platform, to identify where the capital of any foreign country should be. I mean, this is something that should be negotiated between Palestinians and Israelis. But we don’t say where the capital of Peru or Canada should be, so why—I don’t think it is the proper—I don’t think it’s the proper place for either party. But politics in the United States suggests that these things are going to be there. And so, the thing that bothers me the most is that, you know, look, Israel is an ally of the United States. Why should it be a political football such that Democrats and Republicans are trying to out-pro-Israel each other? This is a bad mistake and won’t lead to any good end. And we should—if we really want a platform position, it should be that we are going to work hard to help bring these parties together for a full, final and fair negotiation, not where a capital should be.
AMY GOODMAN: Another issue that was brought back in was the word "God."
REP. KEITH ELLISON: Yeah. Well, you know, I mean, the First—the First Amendment has a clause. The first cause of the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law establishing a religion or abridge the free exercise thereof." I mean, the bottom line is, you know, the right—I mean, faith is an issue for individual Americans to decide for themselves. Again, it’s a political decision so that Republicans cannot say that Democrats are less religious than them, because we have allowed religion itself to become a political football, which is a very unfortunate thing. And I’m sad about it, quite frankly, that it’s in either one, or that we’re debating these issues, when we’re dealing—when, you know, you want to honor God—and I’m a person of faith—put people to work, heal the—take care of the poor, heal the sick. That’s what my faith tells me.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressmember Keith Ellison, first Muslim member of Congress, speaking on the House floor yesterday of the convention here in Charlotte. I also spoke to Michigan delegate, the vice chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, Ish Ahmed, to get his response to Wednesday’s vote.
ISMAEL AHMED: One, we’re not happy with that, and we’re probably going to challenge it procedurally. The first, two-thirds of the delegates were not here. The first two votes, they clearly lost, and yet they brought it up for a third vote and passed it. Having said that, this platform is still better than 2008, because it doesn’t talk about an undivided Jerusalem, and so it leaves room for it to be the capital of both Israel and Palestine. And I think that that’s a good thing. I also feel good because our voice is being heard here. There are more Arab Americans here than any time in history—about 55 of us from my state. There is an affirmative action agreement to have 12 Arab Americans on the slate when we come here every year. So, we’re making real, real progress.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ish Ahmed, who is vice chair of the Democratic Party of Michigan, responding to this chaotic vote that took place yesterday afternoon on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. James Zogby is our guest, who’s a member of the Democratic National Committee. Your response to all of what you’ve heard? Let’s start with Jerrold Nadler.
JAMES ZOGBY: He’s right: the language is inconsequential. Where he’s wrong is that, procedurally, this was a huge embarrassment. And I think Keith Ellison is right: no good comes of this. The simple fact is, is that you don’t win any votes on one side, but you run the risk of losing votes on the other side. My community had been at this convention, came to this convention, as Ish noted, very excited. It was a record number, and we were treated with respect. Folks felt like they had literally gotten punched in the solar plexus by this procedural, very heavy-handed tactic that was used by the chair. Someone at a higher level in the party needed to think through how they did this and what the optics of it were. The optics were: "Oh, my god! Israel is upset! We’ve got to do it! Let’s do it. Oh, the delegates don’t care? I mean, they don’t support it? To hell with them! We’re going to do it anyway." That was really dumb. And that’s why we’re talking about it today. We’re not talking about whether Jerusalem ought to be the capital of Israel. We’re talking about how the party behaved. That was dumb.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has taken responsibility. He says he pushed this through.
JAMES ZOGBY: I don’t know that. Look, I’ve been to the White House for now 30-something years, and every time some 21-year-old kid walks in the room, he says, "Oh, the president really wants me to express his deep regards to all of you, and the president is very committed to this." I just don’t know. When I hear President Obama speak on it, I’ll believe it. But tell me, did Barack Obama want the mayor of Los Angeles to go out and create this embarrassing situation? No. Could it have been handled better? Absolutely. Is Nadler right that the language doesn’t mean a damn thing? Because, ultimately, what the language says is that a united city—Palestinians want a united city. The capital of Israel? It’s going to be the capital of Israel. But it also is going to be the capital of Palestine. And sovereignty has to be shared between both parties. The platform doesn’t speak to any, it doesn’t rule out any of those things. It says it needs to be negotiated. I can live with the language. But the way it was done, I can’t live with that.
AMY GOODMAN: How does Mayor Villaraigosa, who has to hear people shouting "yea" and "nay" three times, determine on the third time, where you can’t hear a difference in decibel level, that two-thirds of those who were there, however many there were that were there at that early hour, have voted for the amendment?
JAMES ZOGBY: He actually doesn’t. What he goes into it is with the notion that "I’m going to pass this damn thing, no matter what happens." But I think that they were up-ended by the fact that there was such opposition on the floor. And, you know, I mean, Republicans sort of spun it as Democrats booed this. Democrats were upset about the procedure, went through the platform, past the platform. The committee met over the platform. To then sort of, "Oh, my god! Republicans are upset! We’ve got to change the platform," that’s what bothered people.
AMY GOODMAN: And Ted Strickland, who introduced it, the former governor of Ohio, was the head of the—
JAMES ZOGBY: The drafting committee, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —drafting committee of the platform.
JAMES ZOGBY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Zogby, I want to thank you very for being with us.
JAMES ZOGBY: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: President of the Arab American Institute and a superdelegate at the Democratic National Convention. He’s a member of the Democratic National Committee. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, "Breaking With Convention." Back in a minute.