Getting On with It

In Politics, Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Politics, the saying goes, is the art of the possible; yet this hard-earned bit of wisdom is too frequently forgotten by the very people most determined to bring about political change. Take, for example, the last-ditch effort to cripple health-care reform—by the left. Initially, progressives rightly insisted that any reform bill include a public option. When, after months of hard fighting, it became clear that the votes for a public option just weren’t there, some advocates accepted the setback and moved on. But others, pronouncing the whole process irredeemably corrupt, turned against the Affordable Care Act. Thus former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, fresh off a turn as chair of the Democratic National Committee, declared in the final weeks of debate that any bill without a public option “is worthless and should be defeated.” Just days before the Senate vote, he reiterated that “if I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill.” The message was clear: Purity in defeat is better than victory through compromise. 

Luckily, the “worthless” health-care bill survived its progressive critics and is now benefiting millions of Americans. Yet the ideological impulse that threatened to derail it lives on. It reemerged in the pious antipolitics that...

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About the Author

Nathan Pippenger is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California.