No less fanciful is Friedman’s notion that both parties are equally to blame for the paralysis in Washington. The Democrats can certainly play tough in Congress, and they suffer from beholdenness to various interest groups, but they seem models of moderation when compared to the Republicans. We live in a world where Fox News regularly mocks the phenomenon of global warming, Eric Cantor rejects the very idea of compromise, and Grover Norquist can get nearly 300 members of Congress to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Jeb Bush recently said that both his father and Ronald Reagan would have a “hard time” fitting in in the current-day Republican Party, which, he observed, has exhibited “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.” Enforcing that orthodoxy is the Tea Party, which has pushed the party—and much of the country—in a radically anti-government, anti-tax direction.
Indeed, I wonder where outside of Washington Friedman has been traveling. To Wisconsin, where the Republican governor (backed by a majority of the state’s electorate) rolled back the collective bargaining rights of public unions? To Florida, where another Republican governor is trying to make it as hard as possible for people to register to vote? To Mississippi, where Republican lawmakers have sought to close down the state’s last abortion clinic? Not only abortion but now contraception has become a national issue thanks to the Catholic bishops and their amplifiers in the conservative press.
Thomas Friedman acknowledges none of this. To do so would shatter the above-it-all, pox-on-both-their-houses analysis of American politics that he offered in “Taking One for the Country” and that he has served up in many other columns over the years. (In “We Need a Second Party,” Friedman offered a rare recognition of Republican nuttiness.) Since at least 2006, he’s touted the creation of a “third party” representing the “radical center” in America, one that would, as he put it in 2010,
challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.
This two-parties-equally-share-the-blame frame was recently blasted by Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In a April 27 op-ed in The Washington Post, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem,” they noted that they had been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years and had never seen either so dysfunctional. And, they wrote, they had no choice but to say that “the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.” The GOP “has become an outlier in American politics,” one that is ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by scientific evidence, and dismissive of the legitimacy of the opposition.
Mann and Ornstein had harsh words for the press, too. Its routine assertions that “both sides do it” and “there is plenty of blame to go around” are “traditional refuges” for journalists seeking to prove their lack of bias, but such “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” Their advice to the press:
Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?
In the book from which their article was adapted, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Mann and Ornstein criticize journalists for doing a poor job of covering the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican Party.
Their article got enormous attention. It spent days atop the Post’s most-read list, generated more than 5,000 comments, and was tweeted more than 3,000 times, and Mann and Ornstein appeared on The Daily Show. Their observations, coming from two respected insiders, would, I felt sure, force journalists to reconsider their faux even-handedness.
Friedman’s column showed how naïve I was.