The Gadfly and the Grinder

Once upon a time, Hillary Clinton was in a race against a passionate ideologue named Bernie Sanders. Her victory depended not on changing, but on being herself—someone who gets things done.

John Locher / AP

Last week, I described what Bernie Sanders needs to do to put meat on the bones of his “political revolution.” This week, I want to explore what Hillary Clinton ought to do in response to Sanders’s “revolution” meme. The short answer: Tell everyone the fable of the Gadfly and the Grinder.

It’s not an actual Aesop’s Fable, of course. But if old Aesop were to fashion the equivalent from political archetypes, the Gadfly and the Grinder would certainly be included.

The Gadfly uses the platform of public office to criticize, to issue jeremiads, to challenge the rest of his colleagues and the country to think outside the narrow frame of status quo possibility. To the Gadfly, the choice is between half-measures and full measures, and half-measures represent failures of nerve and imagination.

The Grinder, on the other hand, uses the machinery of public office to make progress incrementally, to construct coalitions, to grind out ungainly compromises. To the Grinder, the choice is between half-measures and no measures, and no measures are what you get when you don’t show up and persist in the process every day.

Sanders is a classic Gadfly. Clinton is a classic Grinder.

There is nothing wrong with being a Gadfly. In fact, a healthy political ecosystem has plenty of them and empowers them. Go to any authoritarian society around the world and the unnatural silence you will hear is the absence of gadflies. It also is wholly possible to be a consequential political figure as a Gadfly, whether in office or not. Consider Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, and William Jennings Bryan. It is also true that sometimes the Grinder, in love with compromise for its own sake, loses perspective about the moral stakes—think of Daniel Webster, making deals with the devil of slavery in order to preserve the Union.

But what Clinton needs to argue is that while the Gadfly is necessary in a democracy, it is never sufficient. The Gadfly can push the president and Congress to do more, think bigger, and imagine better. But the Gadfly rarely makes an effective executive. It’s true, of course, that Grinders aren’t the only kind of politician who make good mayors and governors and presidents. But Clinton should make the case that a Gadfly like Sanders is constitutionally wired to point out shortcomings, to shout at the people making the unsatisfying trade-offs of lawmaking—not to lead the work.

There are several virtues to her making this case. First, it is true to what she is. Clinton is not a charismatic figure. She is not a revolutionary change agent. She is a Grinder, and not only should she not pretend otherwise; she should wholeheartedly embrace her identity. This Grinder has had lifelong goals—yes, call them ideals—about gender equality, racial inclusion, equal starts for children. For decades, in and out of government, through her systems savvy and her knowledge of how civic power operates, she has accumulated a nice stack of half-measures on all these fronts. Owning her authentic inner Grinder will be endearing. Hillary Clinton is a nerd, an earnest wonk, a tireless advocate, someone who knows the machinery of policy making and legislating. She just needs to match the constancy of her work ethic with a constancy of brand identity.

Second, embracing the Grinder identity will give her room to reframe her role in her husband’s administration. The left is blaming her for every New Democrat law Bill Clinton ever enacted, from the repeal of Glass-Steagall to the 1994 crime bill to welfare reform in 1996. But in reality, she was often making the case internally for more liberal approaches, and often clashed with aides who were more centrist. The Grinder message allows her to say—truthfully—that sometimes she won and sometimes she lost, but she kept on working the process to eke out more wins.

Finally, making the Grinder case aligns her even more tightly with President Obama. Candidate Obama had a bit of the Gadfly in him when he ran in 2008 but from the get-go he was interested in actually governing and not just critiquing. As president, he has been a Grinder at heart. Hillary Clinton should be making the case that the Obama administration is a monument to the cumulative impact of half-measures.

For instance, she should call the Affordable Care Act a terrible, horrible, no-good disappointment that has brought greater health security to millions of Americans. She should admit that Dodd-Frank is imperfect and incomplete—but then ask, in the words of Barney Frank quoting Henny Youngman, “Compared to what?” To put it another way, Bernie Sanders had the chance during that Congress to use all his powers to push his colleagues and public opinion toward a more progressive result. The result was Dodd-Frank.

Of course, Clinton will hardly need to make explicit contrast to Sanders, whose record in Washington is relatively free of legislative accomplishment. She simply needs to be what she is, which is what he is not, which is someone with the temperament and disposition to execute.

In a happy version of this imagined fable, the Gadfly and the Grinder learn from and strengthen one another and the entire ecosystem becomes healthier. In the unhappy version, each one gets set on the idea that there’s only one way to be, and their mutual myopia leaves us with an impoverished politics.

What Clinton needs to show now is that she’s a Grinder who listens, who learns, and who can absorb some of the idealistic fervor of the Gadfly. That may be hard. But it may be even harder for Sanders to do the reverse.