Does the Clinton Campaign Think Idealism is for Suckers?

12/10/2007 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It all happened in the course of about 48 hours. First, I heard Sen. Clinton speak at an environmental forum and repeat this now-familiar phrase: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." These words, first spoken publicly by former President Clinton, were part of an answer she gave regarding what some in the audience considered the risk of excessive compromise on an upcoming bill.

Then Sidney Blumenthal announced in Salon that he was joining the Senator's campaign. As he did, he took swipes at Democrats who engage in a "self-righteous ideal of purity," a belief that they can "transcend ... political conflict on angels' wings." He said these Dems suffer from "an assumption of moral superiority and hubris" whose consequences are - at least to Blumenthal - "self-evident."

Strong stuff. Idealistic Democrats are self-righteous, hubristic, and hopelessly naive. Here's the problem: If there's one thing worse than a self-righteous idealist, it's a self-righteous cynic.

Next came Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor who is also advising the Clinton campaign. Interviewed at TIME.Com, Professor Wilentz said that Clinton's opponents represented a Democratic tradition of "beautiful loserdom," a belief that politics itself is tawdy and beneath them. He compared Obama to Adlai Stevenson.

Then I began to wonder: In a campaign as well-known for message discipline as this one, could this represent a deliberate theme? Could the Clinton team be telling primary voters that idealism itself is a weakness, a threat to the party that must be rooted out and eliminated?

We all understand real life, negotiation, and the many compromises that make up daily existence. Many of us face the same issues in our own lives, whether it's by working with large corporations and government entities, or by living the daily exigencies of politics. (Although most of us don't run companies that do work for tarnished groups like Blackwater - groups that feed at the public trough - while guiding a presidential campaign at the same time. Or is respect for the principle of conflict-of-interest for "losers"?)

Every presidential candidate in the last 100 years has treated the idealism of the voters as a resource to be cherished, not a character defect to be mocked or derided. Does this tendency in the Clinton campaign represent a deliberate strategy? Or does it reflect a mixture of contempt, hostility, and frustration, as the campaign sees other candidates attack theirs on the grounds of excessive compromise with a broken system?

One would think that some level of idealism continues to guide Sen. Clinton and her supporters, or they wouldn't bother with politics at all. And there's nothing wrong with running a campaign on the idea that she "knows how to get things done." But it's a mistake to adopt such a hostile tone toward the idealistic impulse - which, in the end, is the only thing that has ever transformed society.

The Senator and her team should reconsider this troubling note in their campaign. A leader affects change in two ways: by what she does with the power she acquires, and by what she motivates citizens to do. Great presidents and their followers have always inspired idealism in others - not attacked it.

Reality will always be with us, and sometimes we have to settle for the best we can get. But sometimes we do get the best possible outcome, the ideal outcome, the "perfect" outcome - if we have the guts to dream, and to allow others to dream. (The civil rights breakthrough is an example of that.) Of course "the perfect should never be the enemy of the good." But the opposite is also true.

That's a lesson the Clinton team shouldn't forget.