The Good, the Perfect, and the Bern

A familiar adage has it that we mustn't 'make the perfect the enemy of the good.' The idea is that when we are too uncompromising about that which we seek in a world we're making with others, we are apt to miss opportunities to improve that world precisely because we must make it with others. Half a loaf is better than none, and demanding a whole loaf in some places can leave you with nothing.

It is hard to imagine anyone's rejecting these truisms in principle. Even those who repeat them expect, I should think, nearly everyone they address to agree. The point of voicing these clichés, then, typically is to suggest that one's addressee is somehow flouting them.

A vexing variant of this form of address appears to be at work in the orchestrated propagation of a 'meme' by some high-profile establishment supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her bid to secure the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Presidency. The target in this case is Senator Bernie Sanders, the rival to Secretary Clinton for that nomination who is now overtaking her.

Though he is the target of the mentioned meme, Senator Sanders is not the addressee - hence my use of the word 'variant' above. For the aim of those who remind us that 'the perfect' can be the enemy of 'the good' in this case is not to admonish Mr. Sanders, but to tar him. It is to convince us, through sheer Pavlovian repetition, that Senator Sanders is, and as President would, 'make the perfect the enemy of the good.' That is precisely why this knock on Sanders is widely labeled a 'meme.'

Now the fact is, I'd wager, that none of those propagating this meme actually believes it to be true of Senator Sanders. But conveying a truth is not their aim. Conveying an impression is. If polling and other data are to be believed, this propaganda campaign is failing. It seems nevertheless worth pointing out, however, just what is wrong with the Clintonian smear - if for no other reason than to show how it demonstrates, through a remarkable irony, just how historically important our opportunity to nominate and elect Mr. Sanders is.

Begin with this observation: of course an electorate must never let the perfect be the enemy of the good; but we must have an idea of the perfect even to recognize what is good - and what is better. Forgetfulness of this ineluctable truth is the original sin of Clintonism - from its earliest beginnings to the present day.

What do I mean by that? I mean that the principal difficulty of the Democratic Party over the past forty years is that it has grown so fixated upon avoiding the 'enemy of the good' problem that it has lost all conception of 'the perfect.' And thus it has lost all conception of 'the good' itself. Perhaps through the habit of routine compromise, it has come to view compromise ('coming together') not as a tactic - not as a means - but as an end in itself. And so it has thrown off its substance.

This is, I think, the very essence of Clintonism. The so-called 'New Democrats' led by the likes of Bill Clinton in the late '80s and early '90s in a sense 'learned too much' - or perhaps just the wrong lesson - from the failures of Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Humphrey's protégé Walter Mondale over the course of the '70s and '80s. They concluded that the 'liberalism' of these men had been 'too pure' to succeed in a polity possessed of a right wing and center, and that Democrats must in consequence henceforth push policies closer to those that Republicans favored.

This was the wrong conclusion for two reasons. That which you push and that which you settle for always are two different things. And this bears both a tactical consequence and a strategic consequence, both of which either are overlooked or are self-defeatingly brushed aside by Clintonian Democrats.

The tactical consequence is that you must not go into the negotiations from which you expect compromise to emerge with that which you'll settle for as your opening gambit. You go in, not with the good, but with the perfect as touchstone, precisely so that the compromise will be both good and the best it can be.

Failure to live by this maxim was of course the mistake made by the Obama Administration in the negotiations that ultimately produced the Affordable Care Act ('ACA'). It is highly likely that the ACA would cover millions more Americans right now, and that premium prices would be much lower than they are, had the Obama team entered the negotiations demanding a health care system fully as state-of-the-art as are those of our peer nations. Instead it treated the fallback 'public option' as first-best opening gambit, and even then strongly intimated that it would be willing to drop it - which it did quickly - once negotiations began. The imperfect public option, a very good thing, could and should have been that which we settled for, not what we gave up at the get-go.

But then Barack Obama, who not only campaigned but even came to national attention by treating compromise - 'coming together' - as an end in itself rather than a means, always has been, ironically, the consummate Clintonian. He still is. And Hillary would be more Clintonian still.

The strategic consequence of confounding that which you push with that which you settle for is more damaging in the long run even than the tactical consequence. It is that you unilaterally disarm, so to speak, by relinquishing the power to prompt. You surrender your capacity to galvanize, to inspire, to motivate, to move. This is essentially what Senator Sanders is referencing when he says, contra the Clintonians, that Democrats win only when people actually vote, and that only Sanders, not Clinton, can move scores of millions to vote. It also is why those who propagate the false 'unelectability' and 'won't get things done' memes, close cousins of the 'don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good' meme, are as wrong about the former as they are about the latter when trying to tar Benie with them.

No one who examines Senator Sanders' actual record of co-sponsoring successful legislation with Republican peers in the House, then the Senate (to say nothing of his extraordinary successes as Mayor of largely Republican Burlington VT) can seriously claim that he doesn't 'get things done' - and 'good' things at that - by compromising with Members of Congress. But part of what enables him to do this is precisely the fact that those who negotiate with him know what his actual ideals are and hence what he is willing to sacrifice, for the sake of compromise, in the name of what he believes would be perfect. And the one thing that will enable Senator Sanders to move on from 'good' clear to 'better' as President will be his galvanizing the electorate with a clear and coherent vision of what's best.

Ironically, then, Senator Sanders is much more likely to 'get things done' - indeed 'good' things done - than is Secretary Clinton. And this is precisely because he holds an actual vision of 'the perfect' that is communicable to, and recognizable by, an American electorate that actually believes in the right to elect our own government, the right to work productively and rumuneratively, the right to be educated, the right to be well housed and well fed, and the right to insure against catastrophic personal loss.

Let me close then by noting another irony in all of the above, which I think shows precisely the sense in which Bernie Sanders actually presents the Democratic Party and the nation not only with a better future than presently faces us, but with the most significant opportunity it has faced in at least half a century.

The traditional knock against pre-Clinton Democrats is that they were too 'pure' and 'uncompromising,' and that this is what ultimately led a more 'moderate' electorate to reject them. But this is just false - indeed obviously so once you think about it. Humphrey insisted on staying in Vietnam, arguably more forcefully even than Nixon, and thereby effectively guaranteed the Great Society's destruction by hyperinflation. McGovern was better on Vietnam, but didn't connect this with any diagnosis of what ailed the nation's by-then deteriorating economy, let along any vision of how to restore it. Carter then launched the very deregulatory orgy we nowadays associate with Reagan, while at the same time apparently lacking in any affirmative vision or message like Reagan's. And Mondale then promised a return back to 'Reagan-lite' Carterism.

What was 'the perfect' in whose name these failed Democrats flouted the good? What was 'pure' or 'uncompromising' about them, other than their conveying an image of self-righteous pigheadedness - the appearance of uncompromisingness joined to the absence of anything actually to compromise? There was none, and this was what actually undid them. Millions of Democrats defected to bona fide purists, like Eugene McCarthy, or to confident and articulate visionaries on the other side, like Reagan in his early years.

What is most remarkable about Bernie, I think, and the sense in which he is the Democrats' best hope in ages, is that he is the virtual photographic negative of these failed Democrats who came before him. He isn't self-defeatingly purist or uncompromising in actually governing, as the scads of Republicans with whom he has cosponsored or co-drafted legislation can attest. And yet he is comprehensive and clear in his vision - his vision of what would be perfect, and hence in his vision of what will be good.

This means that Bernie's compromises will be good ones - and that scores of millions of us will both put him in office and be there beside him when he negotiates. We've not had that since JFK, if not FDR. Let us now have it again.