Purity vs. pragmatism on Obamacare

My story in this morning’s paper took a look at an interesting question about governing styles: is it right for a lawmaker to try to get money for their state from a program they oppose?

South Dakota’s two Republican members of Congress, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem, say yes. They’re both highly critical of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and have voted against it and to repeal it on numerous occasions.

Both of them wrote letters supporting a Rapid City nonprofit’s application for a grant under the Affordable Care Act, and both said there was nothing wrong or contradictory about that.

“I see no conflict whatsoever in seeking fair treatment for South Dakotans under existing law, and still being opposed to the law and seeking to overturn it,” Noem said.

It didn’t make it into the article, but I asked Noem about a debate in the House lately, when top GOP leadership proposed repealing part of the health care law. Some conservative lawmakers revolted, saying that bill would work against the cause of repealing the entire law by making it slightly less onerous — and that voting to repeal only part of it could be seen as tacitly endorsing the rest.

Noem said she doesn’t agree with that approach.

"My job right now is damage control on that bill," she said. "My preference obviously is to repeal it. (But) I have voted for bills before that have removed damaging portions of it."

Not everyone agrees. A curious alliance of conservative activists and Democrats said Thune and Noem were being contradictory or hypocritical by seeking money for their state under the law they opposed.

“I guess (they are) trying to have it both ways,” (South Dakota Democratic Party chairman Ben) Nesselhuf said. “This is further evidence that Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act is largely a political ploy.”

It’s a demonstration of one of the biggest cross-sectional divides in politics, between purity and pragmatism. You see this on the GOP side with the activists who are upset at Mike Rounds, an avowedly pragmatic Republican. (I’ve even started seeing some conservatives use “pragmatic” as a pejorative.) You saw it on the Democratic side with the liberal activists upset at Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, whose defenders also praised her pragmatism.

While there’s some correlation between the pragmatism-purity axis and the moderate-radical axis, they’re not identical.

If you’re pragmatic, you’re more willing to make compromises on what you believe (whether those beliefs are liberal, conservative or moderate) in order to get things done. A pragmatic believes making those compromises lets them accomplish their goals step-by-step, and makes success more likely than an all-or-nothing approach.

A purist sees compromising your beliefs to get things done as the worst thing you can do, as betraying those beliefs. They believe that if they stay true to their ideals, they’ll ultimately win out and succeed, while compromises to get a little bit of what you want usually end up backfiring and hurting your cause.

What do you think? Did Thune and Noem do the right thing by being pragmatic about the Affordable Care Act and helping their constituents with it, or should they have been pure and rejected money for their state because they opposed the bill?