Who's the Real Idealist, Hillary or Obama?

R. J. Eskow's article in the Huffington Post raises an important question about idealism and liberalism. But it's not the one he poses, nor as he frames it. First, it's essential to clear away the falsity of his accusations against me personally. He charges that a recent interview I gave to Newsweek supporting Hillary Clinton was part of a coordinated campaign among Clinton's advisers, and that I smeared idealism as something for "suckers." Every bit of both charges is completely false.

The interview came about in a completely haphazard way, after I bumped into a former student of mine, Andrew Romano, at a literary event in Princeton. (I am a historian who teaches at Princeton University.) Out of this, Eskow fabricates a ridiculous and dark plot. He then distorts my comments out of all recognition. I never said that idealism is for suckers. I said that perfectionism and purity in politics is for suckers -- and the alibi of losers, "beautiful losers." I also said that Barack Obama -- like some other Democrats before him -- is preaching a kind of purism that rarely succeeds in American politics. (More recently, he and his premier supporter, Oprah Winfrey, have been sounding messianic as well as perfectionist.)

Perfectionism fails because most American voters want a government that will meet their needs and the nation's for the future, even if practical compromises are necessary to achieve those goals. On the Democratic side, this kind of self-righteous perfectionist appeal managed to win high office through Jimmy Carter's "I will never lie to you" campaign in 1976. But its high-mindedness contributed to Carter's failures and paved the way for right-wing reaction. Ronald Reagan easily stole Carter's anti-government themes and moralism while promising to be more effective. The politics of perfectionism on the left also succeeded in creating a splinter movement that wound up electing an even more right-wing Republican president -- the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. Eskow's attacks on Hillary Clinton read almost word-for-word like those Nader delivered against Al Gore. His false accusation is a projection of his own role as a regular hitman for the Obama campaign, which instantly posts his negative pieces about Hillary Clinton.

Senator Hillary Clinton is a pragmatic idealist, in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Robert F. Kennedy. Like them, she knows through difficult experience that the world is imperfect, and must be dealt with and improved on its own terms as well as her own wishes. Like them, she knows that if progressives are to get anything done in politics, they must face reality in order to bend it to their ends. And like them, holier-than-thou pundits are criticizing her for her pragmatic approach to solving social problems, confusing political savvy and effectiveness with a lack of idealism. Or perhaps is this simply a matter of an advocate of another candidate spreading innuendo and false charges against Hillary Clinton? Or, to put a more benign face on the attack, does it just reflect an uninformed sense of American history?

Eskow draws an infantile and phony distinction between "pragmatism" and "idealism" -- even though the greatest American presidents have always been both pragmatic and idealistic, using one to advance the other. If there is a true distinction to be drawn, it is between "pragmatic idealism" with the kind of "perfectionist idealism" Eskow claims to be superior and achievable.

His defense of perfectionism finally amounts to mere posturing, based on campaign imagery and propaganda that has absolutely nothing to do with the hard issues the country faces. Which Democratic candidate's health care proposal would leave 15 million American uninsured? Which Democratic candidate has been adopting Republican scare tactics over Social Security? Which candidate has engaged in a smear of the progressive New York Times columnist and Princeton economist, Paul Krugman, when Krugman calmly raised these issues and sought direct, factual explanations? Which Democratic candidate has been preening as some sort of "profile in courage" -- even after ducking difficult votes in the Senate? It is not the pragmatic idealist Hillary Clinton.

So it happens that the pragmatist is more idealistic than the supposed "idealist," Barack Obama. "Idealism," we learn in this case, isn't based on actual positions on the most important issues like health care and Social Security, but instead on hero worship. Bush's fiascos in international affairs and damage to government are deep and far-reaching. Will a president who has extensive experience be best equipped to handle them? Or should we imagine that there is a magic escape hatch, a transcendental flight above the inevitable and all-too-real conflicts and struggles ahead, through the sudden appearance of a hero, a man on a white horse, who will rescue us? Isn't this sort of "idealism" really a mirror image of the "idealism" of followers of George W. Bush at the peak of his presidency? Such "idealism" demands that we check our minds at the door.

Throughout American history progressive reform has moved forward through the leadership of presidents who were often assailed as less than perfect. Lincoln was derided by political perfectionists of his own time as a conniving and equivocating sell-out -- "the slave hound of Illinois," one of them called him. The very same kind of charge was leveled against FDR and JFK and LBJ. As Casey Stengel said, "You could look it up." Eskow's attack on the pragmatic side of the progressive tradition utterly ignores this history - -and would lead the tradition permanently into the political wilderness, where most of the time since 1968 it has been howling at the moon.

Eskow insists that the good should not be the enemy of the perfect. The ignorance here is frightening because that slogan or something like it has lurked behind every totalitarian government of modern times. Perfectionist ideals have had their place in American history, inspiring protest causes from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. But those who would presume to use government to impose perfection as opposed to progress have created the worst nightmares in human history. We should suppose that Eskow, in trying to tout his favorite, is just ignorant of that, too.

American progressives are idealists who understand that the best we can hope to attain is what the framers called "a more perfect Union" -- not "a perfect Union." Getting there requires the kind of pragmatism that Hillary Clinton, more than any other candidate, understands and has grappled with -- the idealism of an experienced fighter and not a perfectionist poseur.