There’s a nice article by askew over at Blue Wave News about the fantasy that some “progressives” (quotes intended) have about governing, versus the reality of actually governing. The more extreme wings of politics, whether liberal or conservative, are often more caught up by their vision of “perfect,” and their idealism, than whether or not their vision is practical or can be achieved. If there’s one thing that they have in common, it’s that. In various forums, I’ve often been struck by the lack of historical and political knowledge that is frequently demonstrated. Liberals canonize FDR just as conservatives have canonized Reagan. What they believe about them, what they think those presidents accomplished, bears only a passing resemblance to what they actually did. They’ll point to some major accomplishment, but blithely wave aside the reality that it wasn’t perfect, that there were compromises and deals cut, and often the process was not as simple and easy as they now think. Ideals are wonderful things, but there’s also reality. In reality one has to deal with things like budgets, time management, competing interests, and rules. That’s the problem with governing. You actually have to work within reality. The problem with the idealists is that their divorce from reality has been finalized.
It’s the difference between what you want to do versus what you can do. Some years ago, I ended up in charge of a fairly large facility. For years, it had been the “redheaded stepchild” of the system. It had a lot of potential, but it badly needed work. I had plans. I knew what needed to be done, and I had a very large list of things I wanted to accomplish. All I needed to do it was the budget, the staff, the equipment, supplies, some regulatory agency sign-offs, and upper-level support to get it done. What I got was very little of that. I didn’t get the budget or the staff, the regulatory sign-offs were a multi-year and multi-agency process, and as far as upper-level support, the place was still a red-headed stepchild. So I had to work with what I could get done, versus what I wanted to do. Even that was often sidetracked by the occasional emergency. You don’t plan that a water main will break or a sewage system will fail, both of which did happen. Those shifted my priorities away from want to do to solving the immediate crisis, with a reshuffling of everything else because of the resources it took to deal with them.
It’s given me a perspective on politics that many on the left seem to lack. President Obama is criticized for not doing what they think he should do in the way they think he should do it. They blithely wave aside all very real difficulties and obstacles as irrelevant. “If only” seems to be the operative phrase used. If only he would force Congress to do something. If only he would he would pass this rule or that one. If only he would just do it – now. Yes, because he doesn’t, he’s “failing,” he’s “betraying his base.” Little things like Congress is not under his thumb, rubber-stamping anything he wants, that Congress has its own rules and priorities, that the laws, rules and regulations that exist prevent or limit what he can do don’t seem to enter into their consideration. Reality, though, says that those are important considerations. You may not like them, you may not agree with them, but they exist.
In the real world, a President has to work within the framework of the Constitution. He has to live with a Congress that may or may not have the same priorities that he does. What he may want from them is not necessarily what he’ll get. He also has to live with existing laws and the attendant regulations. The President may very well want to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule in the military, but he can’t – because there’s a law. Until Congress changes the law, that’s what he has to live with. He may want the same “ideal” climate change legislation that various progressives keep mentioning, although they’re remarkably diverse when it comes to details. The problem is that each area of the country has a different viewpoint on that, and some deny it altogether. Congress reflects that, so yes, the process is going to be messy and the end product is going to be something that is far from the ideal. He may want to change the structure of government agencies or do away with them, remove certain people, and change an agency’s culture. It’s not as easy as they think. There are budget issues, Congressional supporters, civil service rules, and legal issues to be resolved.
Those are the basic problems every President faces. They all enter office with a plan, a list of things they want to do. But those realities and limitations often mean that it’s a case of what they can do instead of what they wanted to do. Even then, whatever they hoped they were going to do when they ran is not always what they end up doing. The world has a way of coming up with problems that were not foreseen. No one thought that Iraq would invade Kuwait. No one thought that terrorists would fly planes into buildings. No one thought an oil company would be so incompetent that its well would fail spectacularly and pollute the entire Gulf of Mexico. There are always disasters, financial and diplomatic crises, and wars that crop up to force a President to reshuffle their priorities – and place limits on other aspects of their plans.
I recognize that. I’ve had enough experience that it’s made me a pragmatist. It doesn’t mean that I blindly support the President, or that I won’t criticize him when appropriate. I don’t blindly support anyone, and I’m just as apt to criticize as anyone else. But at the same time, I also recognize that there are very real obstacles and that whatever I may want to happen may not be what will happen. That the President has to deal with what he can do, not what he wants to do, and that it’s not going to be an ideal. Yes, I have ideals. I want to see them put into place. But I also live in the real world, and I know that wishing isn’t going to make it happen – and neither is throwing tantrums and screaming about how it “should be” when “should be” isn’t “will be.”