THE BLOG
02/02/2016 04:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2017

Doves, Serpents and the Iowa Primary

Bloomberg via Getty Images

"If I am to set you as sheep among wolves, you must be innocent as doves and wise
as serpents." St. Matthew 10:16.

The intense contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is being described as between idealism and pragmatism. It is not. It is a contest between the politics of change and those of accommodation -- and between transformational leadership and transactional leadership.

And lest we think of this difference as the "natural phenomenon" Governor Mario Cuomo once described as the necessity of "campaigning in poetry, but governing in prose," we would do well to reflect on the most system changing transformational Presidency of the last 50 years: that of Ronald Reagan. And Republicans ever since have been far more successful in translating the "idealism," driving their base into real public policy, while the more "pragmatic" Democrats generally tack farther and farther to the right.

Why the asymmetry?

The enthusiasm that drove the first Obama campaign was not pragmatics, but rather a deep hunger for change. But when President Obama took far better care of those responsible for the economic meltdown, while leaving millions of middle class homeowners to pay the price, the transformational leadership of his campaign became the transactional leadership of his Presidency. And it was a leadership failure not only of "idealism" but also of the equally bad pragmatics that drove the 2010 midterm debacle.

The enthusiasm driving the Sanders and Trump campaigns today is not unrelated. Economic realities haunting middle and working class families since 2008 have not gone away, and, by many measures, are getting worse. Sanders focused this dismay into a campaign driven by a hopefulness that goes with targeting those responsible -- and the courage to say so. Addressing similar sources of insecurity, fueled by fears rooted in the deep demographic shift our country is experiencing, Donald Trump and his colleagues have revived a time-honored American tradition of nativist politics in the North and Jim Crow politics in the South, turning it into the hateful blaming of "the other." But if Trump or one of his fellow travelers were to win, the score would be two transformational presidencies to zero, favor of the Republicans.

Why do establishment Democrats run as fast as they can from the politics of change, while their opponents take up the turf as quickly as they abandon it?

I'd argue there are three reasons:

First, Democratic elites are more invested in status quo politics than are Republican elites. Republic elites see as existential threats the very changes that ought to give the Democrats a head of steam: demographic change, energy regulation, reactions to their increasingly visible status as the robber barons, etc. Democratic elites, on the other hand, are doing quite well.

Second, Republican elites promote policy aligned more clearly with the ideals of their base, than do Democrats. Attacking "government as the problem, along" with a capacity to render it dysfunctional, resonates with a base unhappy with what that government has come to represent -- and of which President Obama has become the overarching symbol. Democrats, on the other hand, are quite tepid in their defense of government. With the exception of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, they too lionize the private sector, honor the accumulators of great wealth and embrace the very "market solutions" that cost jobs, fragment communities and continue to compromise the economic interests and opportunities of their base. It is hard to make a "principled" argument when that's what you are up to -- and we all seem to know it.

Third, Republicans confront an independently organized base that Democrats do not. It is not only a financial base, but also a popular -- and "ideal" driven -- one as well. When the early Obama administration turned its back on labor law reform, public option health care, immigration reform and meaningful climate reform -- all in the name of the ACA -- hardly a peep of protest was heard, as many confused access to a White House that claimed it could "handle it" with the power to influence that White House. This is not to say that the Obama administration did not do good things. What it did not do was draw on its over 1.5 million organized supporters into a fight for the changes that stimulated their support in the first place. Unlike the "idealistic" groups of the right, from the NRA to the Club for Growth, no one on the Democratic side had the power to do much about it.

Ronald Reagan presided over a major transformation in American politics, policy and possibilities. Enjoying elite support for the dismantling of government, more clearly aligned with the aspirations, and fears, of his own "ideal" driven base, at the same time, this President appreciated that change becomes possible only when "pragmatics" and "idealism" can interact.

What reason is there to believe that yet another "pragmatic Democrat," of which we just had two, can offer the transformational leadership required to meet the needs of an electorate desperate for real change?

The "wisdom of the serpent" without the "innocence of the dove" just won't get it.