the kicker

Thomas Friedman’s fantasy America

Not telling it like it is
July 11, 2012

Thomas Friedman was delighted by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the healthcare law. And he was positively thrilled with John Roberts. In a June 30 column for The New York Times (“Taking One for the Country”), Friedman praised the chief justice for his “legal creativity and courage.” Not only liberals, he wrote, but even some conservatives were touched by seeing a national leader willing to take an action that “surprised” us.

It’s the feeling that it has been so long since a national leader ripped up the polls and not only acted out of political character but did so truly for the good of the country—as Chief Justice Roberts seemingly did.

America, Friedman went on, “is still a moderate, center-left/center-right country”:

All you have to do is get out of Washington to discover how many people hunger for leaders who will take a risk, put the country’s interests before party and come together for rational compromises.

That is what Roberts did, Friedman wrote, comparing the chief justice to the wounded war veterans who are introduced at NBA or NFL games. Everybody jumps up and applauds them “because the U.S. military embodies everything we find missing today in our hyperpartisan public life.” Like them, Friedman wrote, Roberts “took one for the country.” Politicians would, he added, do the country a great service by showing similar statesmanship and deciding “the big, hard questions” for the national good. “Otherwise, we’re doomed to a tug of war on the deck of the Titanic, no matter what health care plan we have.”

Somehow, I have trouble picturing the passengers of the Titanic playing tug of war on its deck. And I find Friedman’s comparison of Roberts to wounded veterans outlandish. Declaring a law passed by Congress to be constitutional is equivalent to soldiers taking a bullet or being hit by an IED?

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By far the most objectionable aspect of Friedman’s column, however, was his specious analysis of American politics. “Listen to the broad reaction to Roberts,” he wrote. “Look at the powerful wave he has unleashed for big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership.” (Can a wave be unleashed?) “That all tells me that people are also hungry for a big plan from the president to fix the economy,” one that will fairly share the burdens “and won’t just be about `balancing the budget,’ but about making America great again.”

Where, I’d like to know, is that powerful wave for big, centrist leadership generated by Roberts and the court’s decision? Polls continue to show that Americans are sharply divided on healthcare reform. And where are all those conservatives touched by Roberts’s decision? Most seem furious with him. Mitt Romney has vowed to repeal the healthcare law on his first day in office, and six Republican governors have declared they will opt out of the Medicaid expansion provided for in the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile liberals, while pleased by the court’s decision, wonder how the case ever got that far. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in a New Yorker “Comment,”

That the constitutionality of the A.C.A. was even called into question is testimony to how far the center of gravity in the American judiciary has shifted to the right.

As Toobin also noted, the opinion by Roberts and four other justices that Congress exceeded its powers under the Commerce Clause may limit its ability in the future to expand the size of government and may even invite challenges to current government programs like federal consumer safety laws. “Stunningly retrogressive,” Justice Ruth Ginsburg called Roberts’s reading. More generally, the healthcare law falls far short of the type of single-payer system that many liberals in this country favor and that is commonplace in Europe. The fact that such a system could not even be considered here contradicts Friedman’s halcyon image of a moderate, centrist America.

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.

In the end, the most revealing thing about Friedman’s column was his invocation of those wounded soldiers. This seemed a transparent effort to establish his own patriotism, and it captured the pandering tone of the entire piece. To forcefully expose the truly disturbing forces at work in America’s body politick would risk opening Friedman to charges of being partisan and ideological. While casting himself as a fearless truth-teller, he is in fact giving voice to the bland conventions of mainstream American journalism.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.