Analistas 20/02/2016

Time for realism, not magic

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For me, this is somewhat familiar territory: I was skeptical about Barack Obama’s promises of transcendence back in 2008, too. And then, as now, a fair number of enthusiasts took no time at all to declare that I was a corrupt villain, desperate for a job with Hillary Clinton.

O.K., this too shall pass. But I thought it might be worth saying a bit more about where people like me find ourselves today.

First of all, to say what should be but sometimes apparently isn’t obvious: What you would ideally want and what you think can be achieved aren’t the same thing. What I and most of my wonk friends would like to see is what the economist Robert Heilbroner used to call “Slightly Imaginary Sweden” - that is, a country with a strong social safety net that protects everyone against avoidable misery, provides workers with substantial bargaining power and with a strong environmental policy. Someplace where basic decency is a fundamental principle.

But nothing like that is going to happen in America anytime soon. If we’re going to have any kind of radical change in the next few years, and probably the next couple of decades, it will come from the right, not the left.

As Matt O’Brien at The Washington Post pointed out recently, even the incremental changes that Mrs. Clinton is proposing are very unlikely to get through Congress; the radical changes Mr. Sanders is proposing wouldn’t happen even if Democrats retook the House. Mr. O’Brien says that the Democratic primary is “like arguing what’s more real: a magical unicorn or a regular unicorn. In either case, you’re still running on a unicorn platform.” This is, alas, probably true: The platforms of the candidates are better seen as aspirational than as programs at all likely to happen.

But in that case, why not go for the magical unicorn? A couple of reasons.

One is that there are degrees of realism: A program that could be implemented in part if Democrats retake the House might turn out to be a useful guide relatively soon, while a program that requires a political revolution won’t.

Another is that, perhaps inevitably, the Sanders insistence on the need for magical unicorns has led to invocations of economic as well as political magic. 

I warned a while back that even Mr. Sanders wasn’t willing to level with voters about what his ideals would require - that, in particular, he was assuming unrealistic savings in order to gloss over the reality that quite a few middle-class Americans would be net losers in a transition to single-payer health care.

And this could matter a lot in a general election. For sure, the Republican nominee, whoever he is, will be offering plans that are obvious nonsense. But if his Democratic opponent is also offering a plan that doesn’t add up, you know that the media will portray the situation as symmetric, even if it isn’t. (And it wouldn’t be: Whatever is problematic about the Sanders platform, G.O.P. fantasies are in a whole other league.) This is why it’s important to bring up the criticisms of Mr. Sanders now, not wait until later - and it’s also why the campaign’s knee-jerk response of attacking the messengers is such a bad one. It might work in the primary, but it definitely won’t work later on.

I’m not happy with magical unicorns as a campaign strategy. But I understand the problem, which is also the problem Mrs. Clinton faces: Among young people in particular, being a wet blanket is no way to be hugely popular. Saying “No, we can’t - at best, maybe a little” isn’t all that inspiring to people who want uplift. Realistically, the slogan should actually be “They shall not pass,” which actually could be inspiring.

All this poses an interesting problem for Mrs. Clinton - who will, if nominated, be pretty good at portraying herself as the defender of President Obama’s achievements. Until then, can she try to match Mr. Sanders in uplift? Probably not, because it would be insincere and come off that way. She’s a veteran of many years of partisan warfare, of personal vilification, of seeing how hard positive change is (and yes, some of that applies to me too, although not to remotely the same degree). She’s not going to be able to promise magic without being obviously false. Mr. Sanders, on the other hand, probably believes what he’s saying; the rude awakening still lies ahead.

Mrs. Clinton will probably get the nomination - in part because African-American voters, much more than young whites, know all too well how hard it is to achieve change. So far, at least, polls don’t show Mr. Sanders making major inroads in the minority vote. And, as I said, Mrs. Clinton is actually pretty well positioned for the general election.

But you see the problem. It’s a rough time for progressives who don’t believe in magic.

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