Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Value of Realism in Politics

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

October 11, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

In the complex, continuing debates over funding the government and increasing the debt limit, one consistent demand of the Tea Party movement has been the repeal or defunding of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. And activists have accused Republicans who oppose this approach of being compromised, going so far as to run political ads against some of them. 

It was never a realistic strategy. President Obama would certainly have vetoed any repeal of his defining legislative accomplishment. A veto override would require 67 votes in the Senate – a body that currently has a Democratic majority. The repeal of Obamacare was hopeless from the start. 

So why have these calls persisted?  Some legislators and groups have clearly been seeking advantages that have nothing to do with governing – advantages in political positioning or fundraising. But many in the Tea Party are genuinely frustrated by the size and reach of modern government and concerned that Obamacare will fundamentally alter the relationship between the individual and the state. Calls to repeal this law come from many members of Congress who were elected in 2010 and 2012 to oppose its implementation. 

I have been critical of the design of the law. A majority of Americans are uneasy about its implications. So why not demand its delay or defunding? 

The answer lies in an appreciation for the moral and political value of realism.

First, insisting on unrealistic demands is an attempted end run around our political process.  President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act by winning the presidency and securing, temporarily, both houses of Congress. The law is being implemented because the Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality and because Obama won reelection.   

It is true that Obamacare would not pass today if proposed in Congress.  But that is not the point. Under our system, the method Republicans have to repeal the law is clear but difficult.  They need to win the presidency and secure a Senate majority. There is no shortcut.

Second, insisting on unrealistic goals is utopian. It encourages activism only to guarantee disappointment and disillusionment, and utopianism is particularly foreign to a conservative political temperament. Edmund Burke said, “We must build out of existing materials.” Realism and political prudence are traditional conservative virtues, not signs of ideological impurity.   

Strong views and passions are appropriate to politics, but they are channeled into useful purposes by political processes that can be slow and frustrating. In the end, there is no substitute for the hard work of democracy. 

-  Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”