Speaking in 1910, former two-term president Theodore Roosevelt offered some practical advice that Elizabeth Warren and today’s progressive Democrats would be wise to heed. Although they probably won’t.
Teddy said: “The citizen must have high ideals, and yet he must be able to achieve them in practical fashion. No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible to realize. The impractical visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the embittered foe of the real reformer who, with stumblings and shortcomings, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things.”
Warren, the impractical visionary, has now told us how she purports to pay for her high-ideals plan to erase private health coverage and move everyone to government care. She says that middle class Americans won’t be hit with higher taxes, whereas Bernie Sanders, on her left flank, says they most certainly will - and he welcomes that.
Bottom line: “Medicare for All” is the biggest gift that impractical liberals could possibly give to Donald Trump and his band of demagogues. There’s no better way for Democrats to blow one of the most critical presidential elections in history.
Government health care - we’ll go with the acronym MFA - is a lofty and even laudable aspiration, but in reality it’s a suicidal political loser. Warren says that anyone who knocks her plan is merely reciting “Republican talking points,” but, rest assured, if she were to win the nomination and campaign on this issue, she’d give Trump more than he needs to talk about.
You know how the GOP has long caricatured the Democrats as “tax and spend liberals”? Warren’s health care crusade, which endeavors to reshape roughly 20 percent of the economy, checks that GOP box like no other. You know how Trump is trying to caricature all Democrats as “socialists?” Warren’s crusade plays right into his small hands, because it is socialistic.
If you don’t think Republicans will make mincemeat of MFA in 2020, you’ll need to get up to speed on the politics of the past 30 years. Fairly or not, a huge percentage of the voters hate liberals, and a program designed to take away private health coverage is virtually guaranteed to swell the ranks of the haters. Which is why Nancy Pelosi - who, like Teddy Roosevelt, knows a few things about what’s achievable in politics - told reporters last Friday that while MFA may be catnip for liberals, it won’t pull in the moderate voters who swing the Electoral College one year from now.
As Pelosi well knows - because she designed the strategy - Democrats took the House last November in an historic blue wave not by campaigning for pie-in the-sky MFA, but by assailing the Trump GOP’s ongoing efforts to cripple or kill Obamacare. The Democratic message, in the swing suburbs that built the blue wave, was that Obamacare needs to be protected and incrementally improved. That practical message bores Warren and Sanders and their liberal dreamers, but that message would win in 2020.
The irony - and potential tragedy - is that Warren is going full tilt with a plan that will never pass Congress. If she were somehow elected president with a new Republican Senate, MFA is dead. If she entered office with a recaptured Democrats Senate, MFA is dead - because moderate Democrats would balk, and it wouldn’t get the requisite 60 votes to hurdle a Republican filibuster. It’s a shame she can’t commit candor and admit this, but the game right now is to woo idealistic liberals in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Warren and her allies contend that MFA will massively gin up turnout on the left, and blunt the need for centrist swing voters. Again, here’s reality: Running up the turnout in guaranteed blue states on the two coasts won’t clinch the Electoral College. The race will still be decided in a handful of states - Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida - and it just so happens that Warren is barely competitive with Trump in those states, despite his impending impeachment.
Leave it to the Democrats to dream so big that they risk losing to a committer of impeachable acts. This nation can’t afford such risks right now. As Teddy Roosevelt warned, the impractical visionary is “forever the enemy of the possible good.”
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.