In the Democratic primary, partisans of Hillary Clinton typically frame the contest as being between an unserious radical whose proposals won't work and can't pass (Bernie Sanders), and a pragmatic political trench warrior whose less-ambitious proposals are more likely to lead to improved outcomes in the long term.
There are two problems with this. First, there is little reason to think that less-ambitious proposals will be more likely to deliver the goods. Second, in many key areas, Clinton hasn't actually proposed anything at all.
Exhibit A for the pro-Clinton camp is Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist and perhaps the most influential liberal pundit in the country. In response to Sanders supporters who point to the value of far-reaching goals for political organizing and as an opening bid for future negotiations, he presents two arguments.
First, because Clinton's proposals are realistic, they could pass if Democrats take Congress. Second, Sanders' "magical unicorn" proposals are so horrible and impossible that they can only be sold with lies about what they will cost, and because the media is biased against social insurance, that will prove to be an advantage for the Republican candidate.
Let's examine the second argument first. To start, it's important to note that Sanders' single-payer proposal is a lot stronger than Krugman makes out. A left-leaning think tank recently came out with an analysis of his plan showing that everyone outside of 1 percenters would end up with net positive income — meaning the increased taxation would be more than counterbalanced by zeroing out insurance premiums.
That's probably best viewed as a best-case scenario, and other analysts are more skeptical. But one should keep in mind the policy background here. The United States has by far the worst health care system in the industrialized world. We pay vastly more per person than any other rich nation, and we have mediocre at best health outcomes to show for it. If we could jigger the politics, it should be trivially easy to greatly improve our health care system, simply by copy-pasting from elsewhere. Krugman is simply wrong that Sanders is some kind of health care crank.
That leaves the argument that Clinton's proposals are more realistic. On health care, how, exactly? Krugman doesn't say.
That might be because she has proposed nothing whatsoever that would seriously advance the state of American health care. Honestly, head over to her issues page and check out the section on health care. There's no plan of any kind to address ObamaCare's rather serious underinsurance problem, let alone bring insurance to the roughly 30 million people who still don't have it. There is some oblique acknowledgement of the problems, but no hint of what to do about it — rather reminiscent of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's set of bullet points about how she would defeat ISIS, the first of which was "defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq."
Or take monetary policy, the single most important economic policy lever. Krugman himself has been consistently (and correctly) arguing that the Federal Reserve's decision to hike interest rates last December was a serious mistake. Sanders is the only candidate from either party who agrees with him on this point. Krugman has not mentioned this, instead attacking him for supporting a bill which would increase congressional oversight of the Fed. Meanwhile, Clinton's economy page does not even mention monetary policy at all.
If any candidate's ideas deserve the "magic unicorn" epithet, I'd say it's the one whose proposals don't actually exist.
As Steve Randy Waldman points out, the entire point of political campaigns is to advance moral values and set priorities. I think the wonk class doesn't much like this. They would, perhaps unsurprisingly, prefer that politics proceed in a way that maximizes the importance of their hard-won knowledge. But the simple truth is that the vast majority of people don't pay attention to 2,000-page bills, or tortuous political negotiations, or independent multiple-regression analyses of policy proposals. Instead, they vote for people who seem closest to their values, and rely on them to figure out all that incomprehensible garbage. Experienced policy people are there for when you need someone to hammer out an actual bill. An important job, but a distinctly secondary one.
Now, people can support whomever them want. But let's not pretend like there is an open-and-shut policy case for Hillary Clinton. Her policy book is missing some very important pages.