THE BLOG
09/26/2011 12:05 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2011

Dems Must Stop Hiding Behind the Notion That Politics Is "The Art of the Possible"

There's a political, conventional-wisdom axiom I'd really like to see consigned to the graveyard. Unfortunately, it's forever in chic in Democratic Party circles, and adherence to it explains a lot of what has been wrong with the Democratic Party since LBJ.

It's the most destructive quote in politics:

"Politics is the art of the possible."

-Otto Von Bismarck

This single line and the sentiment behind it sums up the steady marginalizing of anything that could be considered visionary by so many elected Democrats. It is the poison of cynicism masked in rhetorical elegance. It is both the implicit permission to surrender on policy, as well as a suggestion that working towards truly far-reaching goals is immature and unrealistic.

Why? Because if something becomes too hard to achieve politically, it casually gets dismissed under this Bismarckian axiom as "impossible," and therefore impolitic. If something requires too much out-of-the-box thinking, it too is "impossible" and tossed out by the purveyors of conventional wisdom and timid officeholders. It's a one-size fits all cop-out that allows politicians and those who consider themselves to be political sophisticates to cast any failings of vision, courage, and commitment as virtues.

If only the following were as readily quoted:

"Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable."

-John Kenneth Galbraith

This can be a cynical quote too - but it doesn't have to be. It's actually a much more versatile quote. Sure, it says we are often stuck between a bad choice and a worse one. If you can't accept the reality of that, you're simply not paying attention. But that's neither the beginning and the end of the quotation, nor our politics.

Taking risks is also unpalatable. Pushing politically explosive solutions can be unpalatable. Being the first, lone voice for change in an institution mired in inertia (such as the Congress) is highly unpalatable. In fact, revolutions of any shape, size or flavor are always unpalatable.

But when the alternative is "disastrous," the choice is clear - or at least it should be, if we can heave the Bismarck nonsense.