Tom Friedman: Still Wrong

More critics skewer the columnist's pining for the 'center'

In my Campaign Desk item on Monday, I expressed a fervent hope that more political writers would take on the task of explaining why Tom Friedman’s Sunday column on the “radical center,” which touted a web-oriented third-party (or non-party) presidential effort called Americans Elect, is so bad.

So I’ve been delighted to come across several strong entries in the Friedman-bashing competition since then. For example, the excellent poli-sci blogger Seth Masket, whom I cited the other day, returned with a second post mocking the idea that the Internet will realign politics and save us from dysfunction:

Look, I love the Internet as much as anyone, but its transformative power in politics has been way overstated. Political activists use the Internet to fundraise, to contact voters, to spread information, and to debate issues. News flash: we were doing all those things before the Internet was invented…

The idea that a website is somehow going to reshape our national political system is kind of a joke. The idea that a website will be the great democratizer of American politics really flies in the face of everything we know about who participates in politics and who is on-line. If you think it’s going to “give every single voter… the power to nominate a presidential ticket,” just think about what percentage of voters are likely to participate in an on-line party convention next June to nominate a bipartisan ticket.

Meanwhile, Matthew Yglesias noted that an independent president would still have to deal with a partisan Congress, and that might not go well:

Imagine replacing Barack Obama with a hypothetical non-party president, who we’ll posit is to the right of the actual President Obama and also utterly free of interest group ties. How does that get us closer to a bipartisan agreement on the debt ceiling? It’s still the case that you need Democrats and Republicans in Congress to agree if you want to pass something. So you’re in the same boat.

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy. The only reasonable course of action would be to form some kind of enduring relationship with one party or another and its base of constituency groups. Otherwise how are you supposed to govern?

And Salon’s Alex Pareene captured many of the column’s flaws: the na├»ve optimism about the web, the blindness to Congress’s role, and the fact that Friedman’s favored agenda is not exactly shut out of the debate:

Faced with a legislative system with too many veto points and a polarized national electorate regularly splitting their votes between the right-wing party and the incoherent party of “everyone else,” Friedman suggests that we elect a third-party president via Web poll. Yes!!! THAT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING. Someone with no power base in either party, selected by Reddit users.

… Friedman seems to think the problem with his “moderate politics of a center-left rich guy” platform is that there isn’t a party for it. Mr. Friedman, meet President Obama, of the Democratic Party! I know you hate partisanship, but that is the method by which President Obama is trying to create your flat global technocratic playground dream world!

Most entertainingly for Times-watchers, fellow NYT op-ed columnist Paul Krugman delivered a furious blog post denouncing self-described moderates who won’t pin blame for the debt-ceiling standoff on the Tea Party, and, without not quite naming Friedman—Times standards of decorum must be upheld, after all—lumping him in with “a cult that is destroying America”:

…[W]e have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president—actually a moderate conservative president…

…You have to ask, what would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault?

Krugman, at least, may have had some influence. Friedman’s latest column, posted online Tuesday, at one point refers to the Tea Party as a “Hezbollah faction” taking the “G.O.P. on a suicide mission.” It’s a bit of rhetoric that is almost Krugman-like in its excess.

The rest of that newest column, though, suggests that Friedman is either willfully defiant of his critics or blissfully unaware of them. After outlining “five basic pillars” of economic growth that could have come from any stump speech by Obama, or any other moderate Democrat—it was a little surprising not to see a sixth pillar, “win the future”—he concludes with this thought:

Personally, I’ll support anyone with a real plan to cut spending, raise revenues and boost investment in the five pillars of our success—be they Democrats or Republicans. But if neither Republicans nor Democrats can see that we need a hybrid politics today—one that requires cutting, taxing and investing as part of a single nation-building strategy (phased in over time)—then I’ll hope for a third party that does get it and can take us where we need to go.

Sigh. As Jim Naureckas of FAIR writes:

Hear that, Democrats? When you start talking about cutting spending, raising revenues and investing in the future, Tom Friedman is ready to support you. If he hears about it, that is.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.