I have long said that claiming to be “pragmatic,” as opposed to ideological, is a dodge. Someone who claims to do whatever “works” is begging the question of “works to do what?” The means still have to have an end. And the decision of what ends to pursue grows out of an explicit or implicit ideology. “Washington Post” reporter Alec MacGillis agrees with me, and so does the leftist political advisor Robert Reich, speaking of the president’s oft-cited pragmatism:
Last week, President Obama told Sen. Orrin Hatch, the veteran Utah Republican, that he would appoint a “pragmatist, not a radical,” to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
The assurance was hardly necessary. After all, everything Obama does is pragmatic. His adviser David Axelrod let it be known just after the election that Obama was a “pragmatist and a problem solver,” which was a good thing, because, as Axelrod had said shortly before the election, “people are in a pragmatic mood, not an ideological mood.” When Obama introduced his national security team, he declared that “they share my pragmatism about the use of power.” And as he recently told the New York Times, the same goes for his economic policy, where “what I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism.”
Ruthless pragmatism! It sends shivers up the spine. But what does it mean, really, to have a “pragmatic” president?
Very different things in different arenas, it turns out. On some issues, such as tax policy, Obama’s invocation of pragmatism shrewdly frames an egalitarian agenda. On some social issues, such as stem cell research, pragmatism means settling on a middle course to avoid distracting battles on lesser priorities; and on thorny questions such as how to handle detained terrorism suspects, pragmatism means a search for expedient solutions that can seem at odds with the president’s principled rhetoric.
Since his start in the Illinois legislature, calling Obama pragmatic has been a handy way of capturing his conciliatory tone, his disavowal of shopworn solutions and his willingness to bargain with opponents. But the more he and his team use the term to describe his politics — the recent 100 days coverage was chock full of the P-word — the less useful it becomes, and the more it seems like a way to deflect questions about what he’s trying to accomplish. . . .
But pragmatism fails as a political definition, says Robert Reich, who served as President Clinton’s labor secretary, because it describes how a politician moves toward a goal, not the goal itself. “It’s possible to be ruthlessly pragmatic in terms of how you get to an objective,” Reich said, “but the phrase is nonsensical in terms of picking an objective.” . . .
“Most presidents who were change agents . . . described themselves as centrists but clearly had a collection of values about what was good and right,” Reich said. “The question becomes one of how much you reveal about where you want to lead people.”
So that presidents keep most of where they want to lead people hidden? This does not sound fitting for a self-governing people.
These points about pragmatism apply not just to governing but to churches, businesses, and individual decisions. The goal has to be considered. Actually, the goal is especially paramount in pragmatism because it is not so much a philosophy as a tactic: the ends justify the means.