Letting The Perfect Be The Enemy Of The Good

Back in my military days, we used to have a saying which drove the perfectionists nuts: “Close enough for government work.”  What that meant was that whatever the project we were working on was completed, and while it may not have been pretty, it was not worth spending the time and effort at the moment getting to perfection.  That doesn’t mean that there weren’t things that had to be exact, but for those things where exactitude wasn’t important, it wasn’t the best use of time getting there.  I’ve said here in the past it’s experiences like that, that made me a pragmatist.   In politics, it turns out to be much the same thing.  The idealists have a “perfect.”  Depending on what issue you’re talking about, they have an ideal solution for it, and they want it implemented.  The problem?  If they don’t get it, or it isn’t on the current agenda, they walk away.

In a previous post, I talked about that.   Pragmatics recognize that far more often than not, you’re not going to get the ideal.  Instead, you’re going to get “close enough” or “best we can get for now.”   You see, like it or not, real politics are messy.  It’s a big country, with lots of different notions of what’s important and what constitutes “perfect,” even among people who identify themselves as on your side.  Reconciling all of those into something generally acceptable enough to pass means that it won’t be ideal, it’ll be “close enough for government work” at best.

For the idealists, it’s a “failure,” and since it wasn’t perfect, they should now stomp and scream and walk away, if they didn’t succeed in stopping it in the first place.   The problem is that their perfect never appears, so they start the cycle all over again.  For pragmatists, getting a program started or a law passed that’s less than perfect doesn’t mean it’s “finished,” it means “good enough for now.”   It’s something you keep working on to get closer to the ideal later on.

The same thing holds true of candidates.  I’ve pointed it out before, and Milt Shook also has a great post up about it, but there’s a real tendency among the idealists to demand perfection in the selection of candidates, and to attribute that to the candidate they’ve decided is “worthy” of their support.  If the candidate doesn’t meet their standard, they throw a fit and walk away.  If the candidate does meet their standards, they  attack anyone who dares question their perfection. If their candidate wins, they’re happy for a few months, until it turns out that the now elected official isn’t meeting their standards any longer, and start attacking them.

What that means is that they’re never happy, and they’ll never get close to having their ideal.  The reality is that there are no perfect candidates or perfect elected officials.   Not just because they’re human, but because of the realities of politics.   Every politician, particularly if they’ve been in office more than a year, has record of votes or said something which “isn’t pure.”  The longer they’ve been in politics, the more likely it is.  If they’ve stayed pure, then they haven’t accomplished anything.

The same thing holds true when it comes to finding candidates and running them for office.  It’s all well and good to say that the party should pick someone who meets the purists’ criteria, but if that candidate can’t win, it means … you lost.  The rule is “First, you have to win,” and if the “pure as the driven snow” candidates keep losing, then you aren’t going to achieve your agenda.  The reality is that most of the electorate isn’t “pure,” and often far from it.   The candidate whose platform sets liberal hearts afire in San Francisco may not fly in Manhattan, even though they’re both Democratic strongholds.  They most definitely wouldn’t  in areas which are considered “swing districts” or “lean Democratic.”   Which means that the local party is going to take that into account when looking for candidates, even if it does upset the purists.  That’s because political parties like to win, and as much as one might wish otherwise, the candidate who has the best chance may not be the purest.

There is an old saying from which the title of this post is taken:  “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”  What that means is that you might never get something done if you’re only satisfied with perfect.    That’s why the purists have so often failed to achieve anything of note, because they demand perfection and will not accept anything else.  The pragmatists recognize that “perfect” is an abstract, and sometimes “close enough for government work” is acceptable, both in getting progressive programs into action and in political candidates.  That’s because we also realize that “nobody’s perfect,” and “better than the other guy” is still better.   We also don’t stop working, and walk away, because we recognize that “something” is always better than “nothing”  when “all” isn’t a possibility.  The purists will accept nothing less than “all” and that’s why they always end up with “nothing.”

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