The Hillary-Bernie contest raises a significant issue. Which is better: pragmatism or idealism? "Getting things done" or ideology? Hillary's position, her entire orientation, comes out of a specific historical moment.
From Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, and even with Eisenhower and Nixon, government was the solution. Bank failures? Government rules and government insurance. Poisonous air and rivers on fire? The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Old people living—and dying—in abject poverty? Social Security. They needed medical care, too. So, Medicare. Higher Education? City and state universities—among the best in the world—mostly free or nearly so, plus the GI Bill, educational support at time when national service was almost universal for males. Scientific and technical competition with the Soviet Union? Cape Canaveral, the man on the moon, all sorts of research programs.
Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan swept into office with a whole new view. One that turned it all inside out. The attitude, the idea, his revolution, was expressed a single pithy provocative line, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." Now, all the progress that had been made by government was suspect, and much of it, like the EPA, the IRS, the Federal Reserve, and most of all, welfare and taxes, were bad.
Whether Reagan led the charge or caught the wave didn't matter. It was evident that a change had come. The liberal idea of the state moving ever forward from problem to problem was now an "old" idea. The War on Poverty appeared to have failed and, in doing so, had become a symbol of government's overreach and wasted effort on the undeserving. There were failures and scandals. Reagan himself routinely confused reality with old movies. Nonetheless, his popularity soared, his movement conquered the hill, and he planted the flag of anti-government government.
Then along came Bill Clinton.
Bill had been governor of Arkansas. When he got beaten in his bid for re-election, he turned around and hired Dick Morris, the cunning Republican political consultant who had defeated him. Morris taught him how to embrace issues that resonated to the right: cut taxes, attack welfare, and execute people.
Clinton took those lessons with him when he ran for president. Abandoning the Roosevelt-Johnson mission to save us all, he moved toward the center, embracing big business and big fundraising. It worked. He was elected. However, in the very next midterm election, the Democrats lost control of congress for the first time in 40 years. Clinton proved himself able to work with Republicans. He won re-election. Whatever faults, flaws, and errors he made, the nation had eight years of peace and prosperity, including the only period since Reagan in which the great majority of the population—as measured by median income—actually participated in the profits of the time.
Like Roosevelt before him and Obama after him, Clinton tried to create a national health system. Hillary was in charge of the project. The big profiteers launched a virulent, and successful campaign against it. The great lesson appeared to be that it was better—necessary—to have the camels—the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies—inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in. That's how Obamacare was designed and that's how it passed.
Is the get along to go along the way to go? Well, yes. And no.
In order to rebuild their party, Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer, followed the Clinton model and recruited Republicans-lite to run as Democrats in mixed districts and states. They became the senators who blocked the public option in Obama Care. And while Obama Care is an achievement and a way forward, the camels who have taken up residence in the tent are devouring ever more of the sustenance, and it is clear that the limits and problems of the program come precisely from the compromises that invited them in.
In the meantime, the Republican were doubling down on ideology.
Cultural issues—that interesting euphemism for sexophobia—became their rallying flag. The interests of the financial elites—cutting taxes, cutting government spending except for the military-intelligence-security complex, deregulations and privatization, became matter of absolute orthodoxy. Heretics were ruthlessly excommunicated and expelled.
It was a choice that, beyond the presidency, has brought great success.
They have taken control of Congress and the Senate.
They have what's called the trifecta—the governor and control of both houses—in 23 states. The Democrats are down to 7. They had 14, but in 2014 they lost the Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts governors, both houses of the legislature in Minnesota and West Virginia, and the Colorado and New York state senates.
Republicans, running on ideology, can win with Rick Scott in Florida, even though he'd been CEO of a health care company that set a record for Medicare and Medicaid frauds. They can also win with the aptly named Governor Deal of Georgia, after he'd been named one of the most corrupt members of Congress. Sam Brownback of Kansas got to implement all the Republican ideas. They failed. They've virtually bankrupted the state. He's won re-election.
The case for ideology is that you can make strong and certain statements. If you believe, stick to them, invest in them, find the buzzwords and catch phrases that people respond to, they will have power. Even if they have no relation to reality.
Imagine how powerful an ideology attached to facts could be.
Fact: The increase in wealth inequality was not created by "natural" economic forces. It was created by changes in tax policy. Ideological Proposition: Greater prosperity for us all will be created by higher taxes on the rich. That's the way it was when America was "great" and the middle class was strong and optimistic.
Fact: State and city universities once were free! Or nearly so. If we could do that 50 years ago, we can do it now!
Fact: The rich can't be trusted with too much money. They use it to manipulate and bribe. They distort the culture. They bring instability, chaos, and ruin, forcing ordinary people to pick up the pieces. Save the rich—and the rest of us—from their addiction to ever more filthy lucre!
Also, as the Republicans have shown, if you start by hunkering down in a hardened ideological bunker, anyone who wants to do business must come to you. As Obama, and Clinton, have shown, if you start out by saying we want to work together, where's the middle ground, let's find our mutual interest—you've given away your best stuff before you even start. If you doubt that, just ask Donald Trump, it's the key part of the art of the art of the deal.