At Democratic debate Hillary’s pragmatism beats Bernie’s passion

Why should Republicans have all the fun?

For the first time in many months, there was real excitement on the Democratic side this week. We had a too close to call caucus that went into the wee hours of the morning before it went to Hillary (NB: she didn’t win because of six coin tosses and it’s a stretch to fix six coin tosses no matter how you feel about the Clintons). 

We town-halled and we debated on back-to-back nights. My liberal cup runneth over!

Thursday night, we continued to get a better sense of who Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are and what they’d do as president for everyday Americans. In the process, we ran right up against what many are calling the battle for the soul of the Democratic party.

To my mind, this battle isn’t about the difference between progressives and moderates, a theme that has become the centerpiece of this discussion since Sanders tweeted “You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.”

The reason this isn’t the true battle is reflected in how quickly Clinton decimated his argument by offering that by Sanders’s standards President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Jeanne Shaheen wouldn’t be considered progressive. Very few of those who back Sanders would turn their nose up at these Democrats, who have given us so much.

It follows that the battle for the soul of the Democratic party hinges on whether Hillary Clinton can convince voters – mostly the young ones – that she’s got passion and bold (enough) ideas to keep the progress we’ve achieved under Obama going. And she’s got to do this against the backdrop of a 30-year record and questions about her authenticity and trustworthiness.

That is the framework through which we have to view this entire contest and the framework through which we can only understand the rise of Sanders whose ideas – even by his own admission – would not make headway in Washington.

Let’s be honest, there’s something fundamentally unsexy about pragmatism. And in an election where outsider politicians on both sides of the aisle have done so well because they’re tapping into the anger Americans feel towards the Washington establishment, pragmatism is even less sexy.

That said, I think it would be hard to deny that she showed passion that at least equaled Sanders’s – and she did it on more than just a couple of issues.

No one can question his conviction on addressing income inequality and the rigged economy. Or his faith in the rightness of offering universal health care and free college tuition.

But as Hillary said herself, it isn’t that she doesn’t believe in those things – it’s that she knows a political revolution is going 10 steps too far. It sounds great in speeches and it makes for great rallies and an energized youth base, but what does political revolution mean in Washington?

It means more gridlock than you’ve ever seen in your life.

By a margin of 3 to 1, Democrats want a president who would be willing to compromise to get things done. This stands in stark contrast to Republicans who would prefer a president who stands firm on principle even if it means s/he can’t get some things done.

Consider those figures against the fact that Sanders’s rhetoric is about bringing changes that we won’t be able to achieve in the next four years, eight years or even 20 years. Maybe not ever, actually (and I’m an optimist).

So what naturally strikes me is do Sanders’s backers actually understand this? Is it just too hard to get behind Hillary or do they actually think it’s all possible? If it’s the latter, then good on them. But if it’s the former, I would implore them to take a look at Thursday night’s debate again and note how inspirational she was.

Her command of the issues is second to none. I give credit where credit is due and Sanders shines the most during the debates over regulating Wall Street, but that’s one piece of the puzzle. And why doesn’t it matter that she was for closing the carried interest loophole and supported Dodd-Frank?

Furthermore, I’m not in the business of demonizing a tremendous economic engine for our economy in perpetuity – and you shouldn’t be either.

We need some nuance. Hillary gives us that, including the fact that she was paid over $600,000 for a speech from Goldman Sachs and she has trouble admitting mistakes.

But I think Thursday night showed that those missteps are such a small part of who she is and what she’s about.

For some, these faults and mistakes will be enough of a turn off to not vote for her. But I believe for most they will see her mastery of the issues and just how passionate pragmatism can be.

Jessica Tarlov, Ph.D., is a political strategist at Douglas E. Schoen, LLC. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.

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