Friedman’s third-party mess

FRIEDMAN’S THIRD-PARTY MESS…. Thomas Friedman joins a long list of centrist media figures to call for a third party to offer a sensible alternative to Democrats and Republicans. To put it charitably, the column is wildly unpersuasive.

The general pitch is common, but lazy — the parties are beholden to special interests, and refuse to tell Americans what we need to hear. To turn the country around, honest independents will swoop in and save us from ourselves and shake up the “stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.”

I didn’t care for this column the first hundred times it’s been published over the years, and it’s not improving with age. Indeed, the more one thinks about the details of Friedman’s case, the weaker it appears.

He argues, for example, that President Obama has delivered on some real accomplishments in less than two years — health care reform, Wall Street reform, stabilizing the economy, launching education reform, successes on counter-terrorism — but the system has prevented broader and better gains.

Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.

And what would be better than “pretty good”? A more ambitious health care policy that conservatives blocked; a more ambitious stimulus that conservatives opposed; a comprehensive energy/climate package that conservatives killed; more crack downs on Wall Street that conservatives have vowed to fight; and an education reform agenda that the president has already launched.

In other words, Friedman has effectively endorsed the entirety of President Obama’s agenda, most of which has passed, can’t pass, or has to be severely watered down because of unprecedented Senate obstructionism. But instead of calling for reforming the legislative process, or calling on Republicans to start playing a constructive role in policymaking, or calling on voters to elect more candidates who agree with the agenda the columnist espouses, Friedman says what we really need is an amorphous third party that will think the way he does.


To hear Friedman tell it, this mystery party is, in effect, needed to pass a bolder, more sweeping version of the Democratic agenda. Why not just elect more and better Democrats to make that possible? Friedman doesn’t say. How would the Friedman Party overcome Republican obstructionism? He doesn’t say. How would this third party make the kind of institutional changes that have stifled the process in recent years? Friedman doesn’t say.

Other than that, it’s a fine idea.

It just gets so tiresome when this crowd argues, for the umpteenth time, that a magical entity can emerge that will agree with Democrats but not really, establish a “consensus” among people with sincere disagreements, and govern successfully without all the messiness that comes with a massive democratic system.

Friedman’s heart is probably in the right place, but there’s a more constructive use of his considerable media influence — present good ideas, persuade the public of their merit, and call out those who stand in the way of effective policies.