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Idealism Vs. Pragmatism: How Style Divides The Democratic Candidates


On the Democratic side of the presidential race, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have similar priorities, but they're going about them very differently. Our reporters Asma Khalid and Tamara Keith have been spending time on the Democratic campaign trail in Iowa, and they bring back this look at the battle between idealism and pragmatism.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: This is Asma, and I've been out on the trail with Bernie Sanders. Anytime you hear Sanders speak, he runs through a litany of depressing statistics and then calls for a revolution, as he did on CNN earlier this week.


BERNIE SANDERS: These problems are so serious that we have got to go beyond the establishment politics and establishment economics. In my view, we need a political revolution.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This is Tamara, and I've been covering the Clinton campaign. She doesn't tend to dwell on what's wrong with America, but Clinton is clear-eyed about the political reality she would face as president and the likelihood she would have to negotiate with a Republican Congress.


HILLARY CLINTON: I'll tell you, I'm not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world.

KEITH: But the difference in approach isn't just about style. It's also about substance.

KHALID: Take, for example, the minimum wage. Sanders' position is simple. He wants a national $15 minimum wage.


SANDERS: Wages in America are too damn low. A minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage.

KEITH: As with so many things, for Clinton, the answer is more complicated. She says she's taking her lead from Senate Democrats who introduced a $12 minimum-wage bill last year.


CLINTON: They could justify 12. I'm really persuaded by that, and that's where I am. So I want to raise the federal minimum wage to 12, and then I want to encourage more communities, if they can afford to, to go higher.

KEITH: Issue after issue, Clinton offers a more pragmatic prescription.

KHALID: That doesn't sit well with Sanders' supporters.

JENINE CASSON: I think we're kind of past pragmatism in America.

KHALID: That's Jenine Casson. I met her at a Sanders town hall.

CASSON: People are upset with the way things are, and there's a lot of disillusionment. And I think we're on a path to where we need to upset the system a bit more.

KHALID: Casson was earnest, and I asked her why she supports Sanders. She said she just loves all of his policies.

CASSON: Taking America back and making it great again I think is what's important to a lot of America, and he speaks to us.

KHALID: So I'm not sure if you caught that. Casson just used two Donald Trump catchphrases without the faintest sign of irony. Sanders backers, like Trump fans, say they're frustrated, even angry, and that the status quo needs to change. David Harris got emotional telling me how badly he wants that change.

DAVID HARRIS: This is the first time I've heard any candidate say anything that makes me want to participate again. He's the only one out there. God, I hope people - I hope people elect him. He's the last chance.

KEITH: At Clinton events, I've never seen quite that kind of emotion. I met Carolyn Sabroske at a recent one.

CAROLYN SABROSKE: You don't go leaving charged up. You go considering everything that she had to say.

KEITH: She left undecided. Clinton's supporters, though, talk a lot about her experience and temperament. Jill Gaultier went into an event last week unsure who she would support. I caught up with her after it was over.

JILL GAULTIER: I believe I'm a Hillary fan now.

KEITH: Really.


KEITH: What was it?

GAULTIER: Just the - she's not making promises, but she's going to try, and I'm very encouraged that she has the ability to lead this country to better times.

KEITH: Gaultier says Clinton's not handing you the hype, and she appreciates that. Eighteen-year-old Maria Kosovich stood by a rope line, cell phone in hand, waiting for Clinton.

MARIA KOSOVICH: I just made Hillary talk to my dad.

KEITH: The funny thing about this is Kosovich says her dad supports Sanders. But she's planning to caucus for Clinton.

KOSOVICH: When she gives an idea, she also gives her plan and how to enact it. And I think sincerity, above all, is most important - than empty promises.

KHALID: Of course, Sanders and his supporters argue his promises are not empty. They think the country is ripe for a political revolution.

KEITH: There are passion elections, and there are persuasion elections. Next week, we'll get a clue as to which one this is. I'm Tamara Keith.

KHALID: And I'm Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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