Realism Bites

As the Democratic nomination fight moves past Super Tuesday (I write this two weeks before the vote), one of the lenses through which we’ve been asked to view the race is the question of what is possible.

That’s a key rationale many cite to explain their support of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders – even those whose politics are more in line with those of the Vermont Senator’s. Clinton, the argument goes, better understands what it takes to get things done in Washington. Her experience – in the White House as first lady and de facto cabinet member, as an actual cabinet member, and as a senator – will allow her to work within the system to achieve the progressive aims she’s been outlining on the stump.

Sanders, the argument continues, is an outsider and an idealist, someone lacking both the connections or the pragmatic inclination to turn the changes he promises into reality. And in any case, the argument continues, his policy proposals are just pie in the sky and, therefore, no serious.

It is this framing, however, that is not serious. It assumes the primacy of small ball, of operating within narrow policy constraints, of asking for half-loaves because that is all we think we can get. As such, it cedes rhetorical power to the right and constrains negotiations, and makes it more likely that we will have to accept quarter- and eighth-loaves.

I spent several years in retail when I was in my 20s selling tuxedos. The sales strategy was simple: Always put your customer in the most expensive suit on the rack. Why? It set the bar of comparison high and put the customer in the position of downgrading his choice. If you start with the cheapest suit, you end up selling the cheapest suit – even if you could have gotten the customer into something pricier.

That’s one of the lessons we should take from the Obama years. The president consistently undersold his proposals, starting halfway down the road to the Republican position before he started negotiations. The result was weaker policy than he might otherwise have won. In the end, I think he will be viewed by history quite positively and as a progressive, but he falls far short of the bar set on domestic issues by Lyndon Johnson (forget FDR).

Obama is an incrementalist and compromiser by nature, who failed to understand just how obstructionist his erstwhile negotiating partners would be. That sabotaged his ability to go big. The $787 billion stimulus package passed during his first term was too small and too dependent on tax cuts ($288 billion) to make the radical shift needed in the economy. By most honest accounts (i.e., not those pushed by Fox News and its allies), the stimulus was successful, but it could have had much greater impact were he to have put something larger on the table and forced Congress to react. Instead, he put what he thought he could get on the table and was forced to negotiate downward. Would we have ended up with a bigger stimulus had he put it on the table? That’s impossible to know. But it would triggered important debate that could have set the ground for other policy discussions and actions.

The same goes for the Affordable Care Act. Again, the ACA is a pretty significant accomplishment, but one has to wonder whether he gave up too much before the debate started. Not only was single-payer taken off the table, but so was the public option and too much control – and funding – was left in the hands of the states. Could ACA have been better had the administration pushed for something more expansive? We can’t know, but the discussions could have helped frame the issues for the public.

This is why I am skeptical of a purely pragmatic approach to the presidency. Clinton may have a broader understanding of how Washington works and may be able to use her insider status to get a few things done, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves. The likelihood that both the House and Senate change hands is slim, at best, meaning that whoever ends up in the White House next year will be operating in the face of extreme obstruction. Anyone who thinks that either of the Democrats will be able to work with the current crop of Republicans without giving away the store has not been paying attention to the last seven years – or forgets the compromises made during the ‘90s by Bill Clinton.

I’m not interested in telling progressives who they should back. Rather, I think we need to understand that the pragmatism-v.-idealism framing is a false one. Both candidates have idealistic and pragmatic streaks, perhaps in different quantities. Both will run up against obstruction. Let’s acknowledge this right from the start so we can move on to the more important question: Which Democrat has the better vision for the nation’s future?

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog,; Twitter @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram @kaletwrites;

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2016

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