Taking One for Tom Friedman

Today New York Times columnist and uber-pundit Thomas Friedman urged Michael Bloomberg to take “one for the country” by running for president this year as an independent (presumably hijacking the Americans Elect ballot lines enabled in no small part by some of Bloomberg’s hedge-fund constituents).

Now I’m not one of those bloggers who thinks of Friedman as The Beast With Seven Heads and Ten Horns; to me he’s mainly the embodiment of yesterday’s zeitgeist, a popularizer of every oversimplistic cliche of the hubristic late 1990s. He’s been very wrong about some things, and remains very right about others (well, at least one thing: the desperate need for non-idiotic policies on energy and the environment). I can understand how people who think the great disaster of our era was the takeover of an essentially anti-militarist and populist Democratic Party by warmongers and plutocrats would hate Friedman with the heat of a thousand suns, which is why his designation as “Wanker of the Decade” by Duncan Black (a.k.a. Atrios) just yesterday was both logical and very popular in the blogopshere.

But although I see Friedman pretty much as a latterday John Naisbitt (author of that trendy middlebrow 1980s compilation of half-truths, Megatrends), his public plea to Bloomberg really does seem designed to confirm Atrios’ accusation that his defining characteristic is world-class narcissism. What seems to be motivating Friedman to call for the upending of a presidential election by a gazillionaire is the inconvenience he suffered during a train trip from New York to Washington (pretty much the boundaries of his mental world, despite all his globetrotting) and his frustration with the petty partisan politicians who are not sufficiently taking Tom Friedman’s advice.

Friedman looks at the two major political parties and does not see traditions, movements, ideologies, constituencies, or communities-of-interest, but instead sees only obstacles to the immediate adoption of his own preferred agenda–described, of course, as the obvious solutions to the country’s most urgent challenges. More specifically, he looks at Barack Obama, who actually supports most of Friedman’s agenda, and sees a well-meaning but feckless man who has been forced by the lilliputians of his party to embrace demagogic trifles like the “Buffet Rule” when he ought to be agitating for “entitlement reform” and “shared sacrifice.”

So like many self-conscious elitists whose idea of leadership is to herd the poor dumb masses along to their appointed destination in the great cattle drive of life, Friedman is a natural Bonapartist, and Bloomberg is the best available Napoleon. Having dismissed Obama and the Democrats as no better than Romney and the Republicans when it comes to the failure to champion Friedman’s specific instructions to America, the columnist does not bother to address the very strong possibility that a Bloomberg candidacy could produce a perverse outcome, such as the election of Mitt Romney by a plurality of voters who embrace a savagely conservative world-view.

If that were to happen, of course, you get the feeling that Friedman would probably attribute it to the parties that failed to melt away or join a Government of National Salvation, or to this generation of Americans who proved themselves unworthy to preserve their country’s role as global hegemon. It would make for many fine columns, and a best-selling book, available in airports everywhere.

All in all, Friedman’s effort to launch a Bloomberg boom isn’t just narcisstic: it shows he’s guilty of a sin that in his own eyes is far, far worse: he’s unserious. Let’s hope Michael Bloomberg has a good laugh and refuses to acccept Friedman’s nomination.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.