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Democratic Party Platform Mostly Looks Back on Science

4 September 2012 6:13 pm
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Democratic National Committee

Walking the plank. Democrats unveil a 2012 platform at their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

What a difference an election makes. In 2008, Barack Obama ran for president on a Democratic Party platform that emphasized the need to "end the [George W.] Bush Administration's war on science." The document used lofty language in promising new climate change policies, more research with human embryonic stem cells, and an energy strategy that would "solve the problem of four-dollar-a-gallon gas."

But in 2012, President Obama now has a record to defend, so this edition of the party platform has a much different feel. Instead of sweeping promises and grand goals, it emphasizes what the incumbent has managed to achieve despite governing during a historic economic downturn. There is no mention of a few failed Democratic initiatives, including an effort to pass "cap-and-trade" legislation to curb U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, and his opponent, Mitt Romney, is criticized for what he has said, not what he has done.

"We've come a long way since 2008," the Democratic edition notes early on. "But there is more to be done," it adds. "We knew that renewing the American Dream wouldn't be easy—we knew it would take more than one year, or one term, or even one president."

The release of the 70-page platform, set to be approved today by delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, follows the unveiling of the Republic Party’s roughly 50-page version last week. Both documents lay out party positions on both hot-button issues, such as gay marriage, taxes, and health care, and wonkier topics such as how to set the minimum wage. Although neither platform dedicates a special section to science and technology policy, the issues appear within sections on education, environmental protection, and economic policy.

Among the highlights:

On climate, a retreat from cap and trade. "We will lead to defeat the epochal, man-made threat to the planet: climate change," stated the 2008 Democratic platform. In addition to investing in new clean energy technologies and working with other nations to forge "binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions," it said Democrats would "implement a market-based cap and trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic change."

The 2012 edition drops any reference to cap-and-trade legislation (which stalled in the U.S. Senate in 2010 after squeaking through the U.S. House of Representatives), and to "binding and enforceable" international commitments. Instead, it says Democrats "will seek to implement agreements and build on the progress made during climate talks in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban, working to ensure a response to climate change policy that draws upon decisive action by all nations. Our goal is an effective, international effort in which all major economies commit to reduce their emissions, nations meet their commitments in a transparent manner, and the necessary financing is mobilized so that developing countries can mitigate the effects of climate change and invest in clean energy technologies."

It also touts the White House’s record on the issue. "President Obama has been a leader on this issue. We have developed historic fuel efficiency standards that will limit greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history, made unprecedented investments in clean energy, and proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants. As we move towards lower carbon emissions, we will continue to support smart, energy efficient manufacturing. Democrats pledge to continue showing international leadership on climate change, working toward an agreement to set emission limits in unison with other emerging powers."

And it takes a slap at the Republican rhetoric, stating: "Our opponents have moved so far to the right as to doubt the science of climate change."

Backing alternative energy, but using a different yardstick to measure progress. The 2008 platform promised to "fast-track investment of billions of dollars over the next ten years to establish a green energy sector that will create up to five million jobs," and said the party was “committed to getting at least 25 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2025.” It also laid out a series of policies, from investing in the development of new biofuels to cracking down on speculators, in order to bring down high gas prices.

The 2012 version stops short of promising better gas prices at the pump, but it does trumpet a host of other developments. "Historic investments in clean energy technologies have helped double the electricity we get from wind and solar. New emissions and fuel efficiency standards for American cars are reducing our oil use, saving consumers at the pump, and putting Americans back to work. Our dependence on foreign oil is now at a 16-year low, and a new era of cheap, abundant natural gas is helping to bring jobs and industry back to the United States."

It also highlights a different—and broader—goal for energy production, noting that "President Obama has encouraged innovation to reach his goal of generating 80 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources by 2035." Among energy policy wonks, the phrase "clean energy" typically includes natural gas and sometimes even electricity generated by "clean coal" power plants; in contrast, the phrase "renewable energy" does not include those two fossil fuels. Unlike the 2008 version, the 2012 platform does not set a specific goal for the share of electricity to be produced by renewable energy sources.

Mixed report on basic research spending, space, and tax policy goals. The 2008 platform promised to "double federal funding for basic research, invest in a strong and inspirational vision for space exploration, and make the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent." It also promised to boost spending on biomedical research and remove restrictions on federally funded research involving human embryonic stem cells.

The 2012 edition reports that Obama "issued an executive order repealing the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research," referring to a March 2009 edict. It also claims the president has "charted a new mission for NASA to lead us to a future that builds on America's legacy of innovation and exploration." That's a reference to the decision to abandon the Bush Administration's goal of returning to the moon in preparation for sending astronauts to Mars, and replace it with a promise to explore an asteroid or the moon of another planet en route to an eventual Mars landing in the 2030s or later. The document ignores his 2013 budget proposal to cut funding for NASA's Mars program, however.

Although the new document notes Obama has "proposed to double key investments in science," it doesn’t mention that Congress hasn't always gone along. In a section on innovation, it states that "Democrats support a world-class commitment to science and research so that the next generation of innovators and high-technology manufacturing companies thrive in America," but sets no milestones for achieving that manufacturing revival. And in a section on health policy, the platform promises that "we will continue to support America’s groundbreaking biomedical researchers in their lifesaving work" while remaining silent on the size of the budget for the National Institutes of Health.

Despite the 2008 backslap from the party platform, the federal research and development tax credit remains a temporary measure. It's renewed annually by Congress because lawmakers have yet to figure out how to pay for locking in the credit, which allows businesses to deduct R&D expenses.

A call for an immigration policy that helps the economy. "We need an immigration reform that creates a system for allocating visas that meets our economic needs," the platform states in a section on immigration, alluding to the mechanism that allows high-tech workers from overseas to fill U.S. jobs. A section on education declares that, "to make this country a destination for global talent and ingenuity, we won't deport deserving young people who are Americans in every way but on paper, and we will work to make it possible for foreign students earning advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to stay and help create jobs here at home." The platform stops short of explicitly endorsing proposals to automatically give work and residency permits to foreign students who complete advanced technical degrees at U.S. universities, an idea that both Obama and Romney have trumpeted on the campaign stump.

A more muted nuclear weapons policy? The 2008 platform promised to "make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear weapons policy." The 2012 version is a bit more muted: "President Obama and the Democratic Party are committed to preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons and to eventually ridding the planet of these catastrophic weapons," it says. "This goal will not be achieved overnight. It will require patience, perseverance, and the steady accumulation of concrete actions." But "real progress has already been made," it adds, citing an expanded arms reduction treaty with Russia and other steps to reduce proliferation.

A bipartisan nod to international public health. The platform heaps praise on a global health program originally created under Bush—and takes credit for expanding the bipartisan initiative. “Building on the strong foundation created during the previous administration, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has expanded its prevention, care, and treatment programming,” the platform states. "As a result, PEPFAR now has made significant investments in more than 30 countries, and we set a goal to roughly double the number of lifesaving anti-retroviral treatments we provide by the end of 2013. With his latest budget, the President is fulfilling his historic commitment to request $4 billion over three years for the Global Fund, and the President remains committed to robust funding for PEPFAR and the Global Fund in the future."

The platform also notes that Obama "lifted the 25-year ban that prevented non-citizens living with HIV from entering the United States, allowing the world’s largest group of HIV/AIDS researchers, policymakers, medical professionals, and advocates to convene in Washington [this year] to continue their efforts to improve prevention and treatment."

Support for science and math teachers. "Democrats are committed to preparing math and science teachers and training workers with skills for the future," the platform says, noting that Obama has made funding proposals designed to "prepare at least 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade." (U.S. universities may already be producing math and science teachers at nearly that rate, although the country’s decentralized approach to teachers' training and certification makes it difficult to pin down any such number.)

See more coverage on science and the U.S. 2012 elections.

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