When the Perfect and the Good Are Political Enemies

In politics the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

Sen. Patrick Leahy

Sen. Patrick Leahy


In politics the perfect is often the enemy of the good. The quick, easy path of immediate gratification trumps the more arduous process of making compromises in order to achieve greater overall progress.

This plays out in various aspects of the political process all the time. Recall the stream of GOP Senate candidates over the last few years who seemed ideologically perfect to the Republican base but were patently poor choices in states that were something less than an unshakeable scarlet in their political character – Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. Or, think of any number of pieces of legislation that never see the light of day because partisans would rather have nothing over an incomplete something. This week brings a couple of more examples of the perfect-versus-good conflict playing out in politics.

You can start outside the beltway in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where Republicans gathered last weekend to nominate their slate of candidates for this year's statewide elections. Nominating conventions, being composed of the party's most fervent activists, tend to produce candidates farther from the ideological center than do primaries, and last weekend the base indulged itself. No one will confuse Virginia's incumbent Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the party's gubernatorial standard bearer ,with a purple state moderate, but it is his running mate, the nominee for lieutenant governor, who seems destined to carve out a place of his own in the pantheon of nutty candidates.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

His name is E.W. Jackson, which seems to be Virginian for "Sharron Angle." He is a controversial minister whose greatest hits include defending the Constitution's three-fifths clause, which counted each slave in a state as three-fifths of a person, saying that it was an "anti-slavery amendment." He has said that homosexuality "poisons culture, it destroys families, it destroys societies," has a "totalitarian spirit" and that gays and lesbians are "very sick people psychologically, mentally and emotionally." He has said that Planned Parenthood has been "far more lethal to black lives than the [Ku Klux Klan] ever was." He has said that President Obama has both "Muslim roots and experience in [Louis] Farrakhan's Chicago" and "Muslim sensibilities"; and in the late 1980s he fought against desegregation in Boston.

Jackson, in short, may have been a viable candidate for Virginia, as it existed in the 1980s. But 30 years later, the commonwealth has gone Democratic in the last two presidential elections and the last two senatorial elections. This is no longer a bastion of conservatism, prompting reported "panic" among more mainstream Republicans who fear that a loose cannon on their starboard (that's right for those not nautically inclined) could sink the whole ship.

On the other end of the good-versus-perfect spectrum, the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee this week, officially clearing its first major hurdle toward becoming law. The critical question facing it in committee was whether the bipartisan group of senators who negotiated it could hold the bill together in committee. Could they succeed in fending off amendments which, while thrilling to one party's base, would be so poisonous to the other as to strip away the bill's bipartisan support, sinking the whole thing?

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The quintessential debate wasn't decided until the very end. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman, had openly pondered whether to offer an amendment that would grant the spouses of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants the same standing under the law – for their partners to petition for them to get visas for example – as those of straight immigrants. Leahy's amendment is indisputably the right thing to do and in keeping with the core principles of the party, but with the GOP lined up against it the question became whether that principle could be subsumed to political reality. Reality won: Leahy withdrew his amendment hours after introducing it.