The Democratic Debate: Pragmatism or Idealism?

Watching a fifteen minute segment of last night’s democratic debate in New Hampshire would tell you all you need to know about the two remaining democratic candidates. With just two debaters on the stage, we were able to watch them address an issue, criticize each other’s views and respond to each other’s criticisms. During this segment, the MSNBC hosts were largely silence as the candidates, especially Hillary Clinton, shifted into attack mode, following the closely contested Iowa caucus.

Hillary argued that Bernie was conducting a smear campaign against her by suggesting that she had been bought by big Wall Street campaign donors, like Goldman Sachs, from whom she collected over $600,000 in speaking fees. Clinton could not deny that she took money from PACs, but she challenged Sanders to find any votes she ever made which were influenced by money. This was a safe challenge, since it’s difficult to prove anything about people’s intentions.

Bernie never pointed his finger directly at Secretary Clinton, but she is part of the establishment, which he argued needed to be dismantled. It’s true that his messages about government corruption were indirect attacks on her. But, what he said was never personal–it was a stretch, by Hillary Clinton, to portray his critique on campaign financing as dirty politics against her. While this exchange was entertaining, it was superficial. This somewhat heated roasting, however, sparked a more substantive interaction, which revealed differences in their philosophies of governance.

Their goals were quite similar. Hillary Clinton expressed agreement with the agenda Sanders set forth. She wanted health care for all, lower college costs, economic reform, etc. The issue, she argued, was how to achieve those goals. Hillary tried to portray herself as a “can do” woman. Choose her for two basic reasons: 1. the revolution the country needs will occur if we bring a woman’s perspective to office 2. she has the experience of fighting against special interests that will enable her to get the job done. Don’t choose Bernie Sanders, she argued, because he can’t keep his promises. In other words, a Sanders’ presidency would not be “change you can believe in.” Secretary Clinton’s criticism is right to an extent. Sanders has not answered the question about how he would get the job done. Sanders said he will lead a revolution that will give him a mandate for breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks and getting money out of politics. But, he doesn’t explain the steps he would take or tell us how he will address the problem of convincing all the people who won’t sign up for the government’s overthrow that he is right and they are wrong. This lack of detail allowed Hillary to paint Sanders as an idealist dreamer, a Don Quixotic, who has good intentions, but is too inexperienced or naïve to accomplish his objectives.

The candidates have two different approaches to making the changes that appeal to most Democrats. Sanders wants to change the government from the outside. He is a long-standing critic who says the U.S. can no longer survive if it remains the same. We wonder, can he bring about the changes he promises? What’s interesting about this question is that it’s the same question people should be asking Hillary Clinton. She wants to change the system from the inside. She argues for incremental change, building upon Barrack Obama’s legacy. But, while her votes may not be for sale, she is a politician, drawing her sustenance from the status quo. Can someone whose election depends on large donors, remove them from the political process? Yes, she would say. Hmmm. While she does not appear to be as disingenuous as her husband, Bill, who allowed Democratic party donors to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom for a hefty price ($5.4 million in 1985 and 1986), she does seem to speak more “lies to the powerless” than she “speaks truth to power.” Money buys access, if nothing else. We had that confirmed by the equal opportunity contributor, Donald Trump, not too long ago. Businesses would not contribute to campaigns if they did not think it would help them get something in return. In addition, there is another challenge facing Hillary’s can-do image. If Hillary were elected president, she would draw as much fire as her husband did, making it nearly impossible to get anything done through the normal legislative channels. The Benghazi hearings, for example, would only be the first volley in a Hillary Clinton presidency.

The Democrats’ answer to the question of who can most help the middle class may come down to their degree of frustration with the federal government. Do Democrats feel the need to call a repairperson, like Hillary, to tinker with the existing system, add a few new parts, and make things work as better? Do they want a pragmatist in office? Or, do the Democrats want to tear down today’s infrastructure and rebuild from the ground up? Should the Democrats nominate the salesperson who says the existing system is broken beyond repair? Do the Democrats want to pay for a new product? Do they want the idealist?

The Democrats’ choice between idealism and pragmatism is framed within the context of the far left’s perspective of the problems the U.S. faces; the Republicans’ choice is framed from the far right’s perspective. Republicans too are deciding between idealism and pragmatism, with some candidates wanting to overthrow the existing government and others hoping to reform it from within. Lean left, lean right, pragmatist or idealist? The presidential decision-making grid.

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