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Editorial: Campaign 2016: Idealism battles pragmatism in the Democratic Party

A Bernie Sanders supporter attends a campaign rally in Saint Mary's Park in the Bronx borough of New York City on March 31.

A Bernie Sanders supporter attends a campaign rally in Saint Mary’s Park in the Bronx borough of New York City on March 31.

(Peter Foley / EPA)

Bernie Sanders’ promises are like music or candy to liberal Democrats. Free tuition for all. High-quality healthcare provided by the government as a matter of right, not charity. Help for the poor that would simultaneously reduce income inequality and increase fairness. Many Democrats — and especially young Democrats — see in the Vermont senator a candidate who won’t kowtow to the other side, won’t vote for the Iraq war or oppose gay marriage because it is politically expedient to do so, but instead will say what he means, demand what he wants and stick to his principles in a world full of compromisers and triangulators.

But uh-oh, here comes the voice of reason, Hillary Clinton, offering an alternative narrative. Sanders’ proposals sound fabulous, she says, but shouldn’t we return for a moment to the real world? A world of divided government, where even the president of the United States cannot have her way but must negotiate and haggle for votes from across the aisle. Clinton backers see a world in which both houses of Congress are controlled, at last for the moment, by the GOP, and the only path forward for a Democratic president with a progressive agenda is one of wheeling and dealing and, yes, compromise. Sanders’ bold, feel-good proposals would be dead on arrival, and although he may win votes from young idealists and old lefties, he will never accomplish as much in office as she will. Or so they say.

A good politician must learn how to make rational sacrifices without trading away his or her core convictions.

At the moment, the Clintonian vision of the world appears to have a slight edge. In exit polls from Ohio, 77% of Democratic primary voters said Clinton’s policies were “realistic,” while only 58% said the same about Sanders’ policies. That divide was even wider in Florida and North Carolina. Perhaps that’s what’s being reflected in the lopsided delegate count, which she leads, 1,758 to 1,069.

Sadly, this dispute — idealism, let’s call it, versus pragmatism — won’t be settled regardless of who eventually wins the Democratic nomination. These two competing narratives predate the Clinton-Sanders showdown (and indeed are as old as democracy itself), and will still be around long after the 2016 race has been run and won. Since antiquity, people who think about politics have debated whether the greatest leaders are men and women of unyielding principle or those who understand the importance of setting realistic goals, cutting deals and locking in partial gains when possible.

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The debate goes back to Aristotle, to Machiavelli. In the 18th century, Edmund Burke wrote that “all government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill wrote: “I became practically conversant with the difficulties of moving bodies of men, the necessities of compromise, the art of sacrificing the nonessential to preserve the essential.” On the other side, former House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Texas) argued in his 2006 farewell address: “It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesman who elevates compromise to a first principle.”

America’s beloved President Lincoln was a compromiser on an issue over which there wouldn’t seem to be much room for moral flexibility. Although he insisted he had always opposed slavery in his heart, he for many years declined to call for abolition in existing slave states and merely opposed its westward expansion into new territories. Even after the Civil War began, he backed a gradual rather than immediate end to slavery, with compensation to be paid to slave owners. Many abolitionists saw such compromise as surrender. “It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned,” said Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner.

President Obama, despite an early flirtation with hope and change, has been mostly in the pragmatic camp. After cutting a 2010 deal with the GOP on taxes that angered his Democratic base, Obama derided “the satisfaction of having a purist position — and no victories for the American people.”

A similar battle has played out among Republicans in the House of Representatives, where GOP leaders have been under siege for several years by ideological purists. And in presidential politics, the Republican Party has swung back and forth for decades between far-right conservatives pushing an idealized vision of minimalist government and those championing a more expansive “big tent” party that places problem-solving above ideology. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) represents the former this year and Ohio Gov. John Kasich the latter.

It’s a debate that will undoubtedly go on forever, but in reality the question does not require a binary solution. It is not the case that compromisers are right and politicians of principle wrong — or vice versa. What’s more, there are few politicians who do not have a mix of the idealist and the pragmatist in them. (Surely Clinton would claim to have principles and Sanders no doubt would insist he’s willing to make rational compromises; it’s just a matter of degree.)

In truth, the tough question facing politicians is not whether to compromise, but under what circumstances to do so. A president like Obama, who currently must work with a Congress dominated by the opposing party, has to compromise far more than a Lyndon Johnson, whose Democrats controlled the House and the Senate throughout his term in office.

A good politician must learn how to make rational sacrifices without trading away his or her core convictions. He or she must also ask whether a particular compromise will bring an improvement over the status quo, even an incremental one — if so, then perhaps it’s worth agreeing to. Although it is true that a candidate who makes an effort to compromise may nevertheless find himself with few or no partners, a candidate who refuses to compromise at all will very often accomplish little or nothing.

The appeal of Sanders is his moral crusade, his reimagining of American politics beyond the narrow frame of what’s “achievable” in an increasingly dysfunctional, partisan process. When Sanders spoke to The Times’ editorial board recently, he spoke of a campaign that was “profoundly different” from others and a presidency that would “transform this country” through what he calls a “political revolution.” Bold words, inspiring words and an important reminder to Democrats not to allow themselves to be locked into a box by unimaginative politicians who fail to think big.

But if the balance of power in Washington doesn’t change radically, if the political revolution fails to materialize, Sanders’ audacious promises would remain merely slogans and wishes.

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