Pragmatists and Idealists: A Word About John Kerry

The nomination of John Kerry in 2004 was an act of “pragmatism” (to be sure, misguided pragmatism, I mean, seriously, a Massachusetts Senator as the pragmatic choice?) by the Democratic electorate. While most Democrats liked Kerry on the issues (except the big one Iraq, of course) voting for John Kerry was largely a collective act of pragmatism imo.

It’s interesting that Kerry was the pragmatic choice for the Democratic electorate as he behaved as a “pragmatic” politician in the run up to the 2004 campaign, and for too long in the general election campaign. It was a mistake for the Democratic electorate and a mistake for Kerry.

Of course after he lost, John Kerry became a brave politician. And credit to him for that. I will always have great respect for John Kerry now for one reason especially, his willingness to lead a filibuster fight against Sam Alito. Kerry and the many “idealists” at Daily Kos shamed me into joining what remains, in my estimation, the Netroots’ finest moment – leadership from the bottom up that led to a principled and WISE fight against Sam Alito’s confirmation. The interesting result of that fight, in the face of predictions of political doom, was an invigorated Democratic base and a Democratic Establishment that learned in 2006 that the sky would not fall if they ignored the DC Establishment and stood for something.

Does this have lessons for us as Democrats and activists? I think it does. I’ll explain on the flip.

Those who have read me over the years should be aware that I have advocated for a Politics of Contrast for the Democratic Party. The essence of the idea is to clearly delineate differences between the Republican Party, its policies and values, and those of the Democratic Party. Whenever Democrats do that, as during the Alito fight, the image of Democrats, EVEN AMONG THOSE WHO DISAGREE WITH US, improves. Democrats become seen as people who believe in something and care about those things they believe in.

In short, “pragmatism” in politics is usually NOT pragmatic. It is stupid politics. What Democrats need to be reminded of is their strength in 2006 derived from their willingness to fight fights they knew they would probably lose. Because it defined the Democrats as standing for something and the issues they fought for defined themselves and the Republicans. The more Democrats did that, the stronger they became politically.

As the Democratic base, as activists, when we urge the Democratic leadership and the Party as a whole to do this, we are being “pragmatic.” We are being politically shrewd. We are in an era, and it is not always this way, when doing the right thing also happens to be doing the smart thing politically.

Many might now ask me – so why is not the fight for impeachment one of those idealistically “politically smart” fights, for the Party and for us? My reasoning has always remained the same and it remains so now – we have a more important fight to fight right now:

(1) It will NEVER happen . . . Remember, to remove Bush from office requires a 2/3 vote from the Senate, which means 17 Republicans (I count Lieberman as a Republican) must vote to remove from office. It simply will never happen. No realistic person can think it will. So let’s be clear, impeachment here is nothing but a symbolic gesture.

(2) It is likely to have negative political ramifications for Democrats in 2008. I care less about this than most. If Bush and Cheney could be removed, the political cost could be worth it. But since they can not be removed, then it simply is not.

(3) Impeachment would preclude discussion of of all other issues, most notably Iraq. Indeed, impeachment would be the worst possible development for ending the war in Iraq. It supplants getting out of Iraq as the centerpiece issue for progressive activism.

Last, and probably least, the progressive base and the Netroots would be utterly defanged and treated as completely irrelevant if it chooses to waste its time on pushing for impeachment. No more than a handful of Democrats will vote for it. The Media will portray as on par with 9/11 conspiracies. It is to throw away the progressive base and Netroots’ power as a Left flank in the political discourse. It relegates it to crazy Larouche status.

. . .

But my ultimate bottom line is that the essential role the progressive base and the Netroots can and should play on ending the war in Iraq will be completely squandered. That is the part that I will find hard to forgive.

We have a fight to fight right now – ending the Iraq Debacle. We can win that fight and we can sway Democrats on it. Let’s fight that fight.


Skip to comment form

    • Armando on September 13, 2007 at 12:42 am

    So whomever I jumped, post right on top of me please.

  1. instead of sticking our hand in the impeachment blender, we should get out troops out of the death blender in Iraq?

    Sounds good.

    Plus, with only 15 months left of the Bush Administration, I can see them easily running out the clock on impeachment.

    And we have impeach both Bush AND Cheney, lord help us all if we impeach Bush and make Cheney Commander in Chief.

  2. but the first part of this essay was almost orgasmic.

    In short, “pragmatism” in politics is usually NOT pragmatic. It is stupid politics. what Democrats need to be reminded of is their strength on 2006 derived from their willingness to fight fights they knew they would probably lose. Because it defined the Democrats as standing for something and the issues they fought for defined themselves and the Republicans. The more Democrats did that, the stronger they became politically.

    That is what I want to see the Democrats do right now, stand up and fight and not fold, even though they may lose, because they don’t have the numbers. I want them to drop the fucking calculators and pick up their little brown book of the Constitution and shake it with firey language, as Larry Byrd has been known to do.

    As to impeachment, I have come to the conclusion that it is now too late, but I’d still like Waxman, Conyers and Leahy to hold people accountable for crimes in their committees. I’d still like to see those subpoenas enforced. I’d like all the war profiteers to be imprisoned.

    And Dammit, I still want Rove to be frog marched, because it would make Dood and all the rest of us so happy!

    • SallyCat on September 13, 2007 at 12:53 am

    or we’ll fall for anything’….to mis-quote a bad country song.

    2004 slapped us in the face when pragmatism was the only answer. You’re right that in 2006 we stood up and argued for our beliefs, even when we lost. Now we are more motivated and empowered than I have seen in many years. This netroots empowerment has reached from beyond those of us that blog to those around us. While I gain information from the Netroots it goes out more than three-fold. Each week I convert a new person to standing and acting, not just bitching and moaning.

    The Democratic Party in Washington DC is hearing more and more from us. The pundits are at least listening, however limited, to the Netroots.

    What will it take to motivate Democrats in Congress to pay attention to the will of the people?

    What more will it take to get the same Democrats to stop enabling the war mongers in the WH and Pentagon?

  3. As for myself, I’ve begun to doubt that the Democrats can end the Iraq war. I think they’re involved in a “game”, the same game as the Bush administration is playing, which is to draw out the war until the November 2008 general election. Bush wants to hand off the ‘war’ to his successor so he or she will be blamed for ‘losing’. The Democrats seem to want to have the ‘war’ because they can point to the Republicans come election time and say if you vote for them, they’ll keep the troops in Iraq.

    Each side has the stalemate position they want for the 2008 elections if they happen. The Democrats are counting on them happening, I’m not to sure Cheney is though.

    As for taking a pragmatic stand. From my perspective, what eclipses Iraq or impeachment is countering global warming. If there is a place where the Democrats should make a stand, it is with halting global warming, but they don’t seem overly interested in that either.

  4. did ya get that Armando? :-p

    Don’t get me wrong.  Impeachment would be spectacular.  It would make me downright giddy.  But, aside from the impracticality, there simply isn’t time.  The American People want Out of Iraq.  We should work our asses off to give it to them. 

  5. You guys just go ahead and have fun while I’m over in the other thread schlepping ponies around!



  6. I’ll leave my Kerry rants over on Kos, this site is about the future and I’m all ears.

  7. There is the point, however, that impeachment requires the Democrats to do something, while defunding requires them not to do something.

    Still, my understanding is that the three branches of government work the way we all accept that they do, and I fear that should Bush walk out of office in January of 2009 with his Unitary Executive theory accepted, or not strongly repudiated by Congress, then what fun we will have when the next executive decides to go un-Constitutional on us.

    (I would be not the Constitutional scholar here, so please feel free to correct.)

    And, seriously, how long would it take to take the papers from 1974 – you know, the ones from the Judiciary Committee regarding Nixon ignoring subpoenas, change the names and dates, and file it again?

    That would be the whole standing up for something I’d like to see.

    Look, if we wait until January of 2009 to magically get the rule of law back, we might not see it again. Just sayin’.

  8. One of the things that I respected most about dkos when I started there was the string of great articles you posted about the Bush nominees to the SCOTUS.  Events have proven you right regarding the damage they have done to the Court and the country.

    • banger on September 13, 2007 at 1:37 am

    One person’s pragmatism is another persons dreamworld. I don’t have any answers to the questions you raised. But I have three comments on what you wrote:

    1. I don’t share your appreciation for Kerry–he could have done something about the appalling election conditions in this country that may have cost him the Presidency particularly after the fact that Gore would have clearly won if all the votes were counted in Florida–I will never understand that fully. I don’t mean he should have contested the election even (though I think he surrendered way to soon) but that he should have agitated to look at the way we elect Presidents in this country that is embarrassing by international standards.
    2. There is no pragmatic way to end the war in Iraq unless you create a valid counter policy; “getting out” is not a policy. Opponents need to articulate a substitute policy clearly and boldly. There are reasons we are in Iraq it wasn’t “a mistake”; the invasion was done as part of an overall plan for, frankly, world domination (you could hear the cackles in Washington at night, believe me). Should we be an imperial power? Should we only intervene on humanitarian grounds? What are “our” interests really? Let’s take a look. Obama for example often mentions “protecting our interests” but what does he mean?
    3. Impeachment is not unrealistic and is, when looked upon a little differently, pragmatic. It is pragmatic if your goal is to return the country to Constitutional rule rather than the virtual (i.e., de facto) rule by decree due to the undeclared Permanent War (the Long War). I think impeachment need not even happen but the process of looking into the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration (and there are many) will get the attention of the American people who currently think far less of Congress than they think of this President–a shocking indictment on the Democratic leadership who seem clearly out of their depth on the national stage (compare them to Newt and his crew, for example).

    Don’t mistake me, I’m not suggesting dropping work on the Iraq war or even beginning the impeachment process–I really don’t know what is the best course–it depends on your goal. For example just squeaking through in the next election because Dems are not Republicans may be cool but you then have no mandate to do anything–is that pragmatic? An history has shown that Democrats without large mandates cannot accomplish anything while Republicans can because they are so closely linked to big money, the military and thugs.

    Clearly the Bush administration, from a tactical and strategic point of view is just much better at politics and the Democrats lack credibility and support not only from the base but the independents who, I’m sure, may sympathize with Democratic ideas but clearly don’t respect the Party and suspect (rightly) that it is in thrall to large corporate interests.

    1. I’m still giggling.

      Byrd in the corner, Cheney is coming up to block the shot, Larry shots with a high arching Constitutional speech!


    2. I was like, “since when did Larry Bird get into politics?  Google search to the rescue!!!!”


      • shpilk on September 13, 2007 at 2:09 am

      seen the picture of Larry Bird and Julius Erving with their hands at each other’s throats .. you’d want Larry Bird on your side.

    • Temmoku on September 13, 2007 at 1:38 am

    I tend to agree with you although I would love to see Impeachment and this President deserves it, but it won’t happen. Maybe, just maybe, after he is no longer President, he will be tried for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity….but that may be wishful on my part as well.

  9. I wanted someone “electable”, someone “presidential”, someone who was a great “statesman” (whatever that is, Grandma Vera beat that one into my head and told me Lloyd Bentzen was a great statesman and Kerry and Lloyd are sort of cut from the same tall stoic pragmatist get no where fast when surrounded by Republicans cloth).  Kerry felt comfortable like flannel pajamas and then I went night night.

  10. standing for something, and political strength.  I once gave up sucking my thumb, but impeachment is a harder habit to break.  I also think now is the time for maximal pressure on Dems to “fund withdrawal,” because this is magical September, Petraeus and the surge suck, and Dems may be budging a tiny bit.  War with Iran frightens the crap out of me, even more than failing to impeach, ’cause that would mean we’re “all in” when we should definitely fold.  The idea of actually winning a fight is not unappealing. 

      • Armando on September 13, 2007 at 1:06 am

      I did not obviously.

      • lezlie on September 13, 2007 at 6:50 am

      on this one… the impeachment boat has sailed, but we can get our troops out of the quicksand… we have more power than our leaders are leading us to believe… balls all around!

    • pfiore8 on September 13, 2007 at 2:11 am

    we have to take WINNING out of the equation and we have to start reinserting: DOING WHAT IS RIGHT

    you keep saying establish a clear cut difference between us and the republicans… you want bravey… then what is more stark than pursuing the indictman of George W. Bush for his destruction of the infrastructure of our government  How about men and women doiong what is right and being brave enough to embark on it without having all the votes… and thereby doing ONE FUCKING THING ARMANDO that they were elected to do and perhaps the only one thing left after this dismal years: begin impeachment proceedings.

    i am tired of calculating all this crap. you want brave? then do what everyone tells you is impossible and not practical. do it because it is the right thing. how about if we just did this one thing because it was the right thing…

    how much of a difference do you think that would make against the backdrop of republican hypocrisy, lies, and their use of our troops for corporate interests… NOT AMERICAN.

    you want a difference, then try that on for size.

    i’m tried of winning, because in this way of winning, we all lose

    • beachmom on September 13, 2007 at 2:47 am

    I’m sorry but there was nobody better in the primary field than John Kerry.  Not only did he have that presidential aura, unmatched debating skills, the best healthcare plan, and an unbelieveably heroic history (and yes, I mean ALL of it including his 1971 testimony before the SFRC), he also had the most liberal record of the pack.  The League of Conservation Voters IMMEDIATELY endorsed him early.  He has a better environmental record than Al Gore did in the Senate (to be fair, John is from Mass., and perhaps didn’t have political pressures on him that Al may have had in Tennessee).  He used the phrase “Energy Independence” in his campaign, the first presidential candidate to put that idea forward.

    Read his foreign policy ideas.  They were not about using endless war.  He was right about so many things, that everyone repeats still to this day.  “We outsourced Afghan warlords and failed to catch OBL at Tora Bora ” (JK)  “The war on terror will primarily not be fought by the military, but will largely be a law enforcement and intelligence gathering operation” (JK)  “The Iraq War was the Wrong War at the Wrong Time in the Wrong Place” (JK).  “George Bush will try to privatize social security” (JK)  “George Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and attacked a country that had nothing to do with 9/11” (JK)  “You don’t go to war because you want to; you only go to war because you have to” (JK)  He talked about those munitions dumps in Iraq the week before the election that had been plundered by bandits.  I think that one hurt Bush and made them scramble for days.

    Everyone likes to make fun of his gaffes (there were 2).  But sorry, I heard the wise stuff, too.  And he had the odds against him.  Clinton considered getting in the race but decided it was unwinnable.  Kerry came very, very close of unseating a wartime president who had a steady approval rating in the 50% approval rating range.  It was pre-Katrina and the media was Bush’s lapdog.  That is next to impossible to beat, but he almost did.

    And I hadn’t really heard of him except the POW/MIA hearings prior to the presidential election, and now I am one of his biggest supporters.  He must have done something right in ’04 for that to have happened.

  11. Is this a great blog or what 🙂

    Incidentally – slightly OT – but I’d love to see your take on this and this and perhaps even this. Mostly the original post by Juan Cole though – the rest is mostly, uhm, resonance.

    • wu ming on September 13, 2007 at 6:53 am

    because the democratic leadership – and i suspect, a majority of the democratic caucus in both the house and the senate, but egregioiusly so in the senate – is utterly uninterested in actually delivering on either.

    i have given up on the cowed and/or incompetent explanations for these feckless dive-takers; my theory now is complicity in the overall agenda that the bush administration and the republicans are pushing.

    were we to have a party worth a damn, and willing to risk their majority to actually deliver on their platform (ironically, the only way that they will ever get a majority worth having), we could make hay on both impeachment and the war, simply by forcing the republicans to choose bush over the wishes of the american people. whether we ultimately succeeded or not, we could hang this wretched status quo around their necks like a burning tire, for a generation.

    but we don’t have a party worth a damn, and so we’re seeing the same strategy thrown back in our faces bizarro-style, as the democratic leadership (and by their inaction, the caucus as a whole) chooses defense (by “compromise” and inaction) of bush against the will of the american people. idiots and traitors.

    we need to fight back, both within the political system and without, but do not look for hope in the current elected officials. i fear that they would be willing to sacrifice their own seats to avoid confronting this president and his policies. indeed, some of them did just that in 2002, though they believed it to be “pragmatism.”

    i want to believe, but i see no signs of there being hope on any fronts. they are truly playing with whig 1856 fire here, doubly so when the consequences of the past several years start rolling in, economically, environmentally, politically, and miltarily.

    that said, i’m with you 100% on that “pragmatism” paragraph of yours.

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