Welcome to Thomas Friedman’s brain:
The Problem: Barack Obama’s legislative agenda has been stymied by politicians to his right:
President Obama has not been a do-nothing failure. He has some real accomplishments. He passed a health care expansion, a financial regulation expansion, stabilized the economy, started a national education reform initiative and has conducted a smart and tough war on Al Qaeda.
But there is another angle on the last two years: a president who won a sweeping political mandate, propelled by an energized youth movement and with control of both the House and the Senate — about as much power as any president could ever hope to muster in peacetime — was only able to pass an expansion of health care that is a suboptimal amalgam of tortured compromises that no one is certain will work or that we can afford (and doesn’t deal with the cost or quality problems), a limited stimulus that has not relieved unemployment or fixed our infrastructure, and a financial regulation bill that still needs to be interpreted by regulators because no one could agree on crucial provisions. Plus, Obama had to abandon an energy-climate bill altogether, and if the G.O.P. takes back the House, we may not have an energy bill until 2013.
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.
The Solution, Part One: So we need a third party situated to Barack Obama’s right:
Barring a transformation of the Democratic and Republican Parties, there is going to be a serious third party candidate in 2012, with a serious political movement behind him or her — one definitely big enough to impact the election’s outcome.
There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but in the radical center. I know of at least two serious groups, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing “third parties” to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.
The Solution, Part Two: And we need to replace Barack Obama with another more centrist president:
We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”
I don’t dispute that the two party system in America creates problems. I don’t dispute the potential of third parties to change American politics. And in contrast to Thomas Friedman (who embraces the Obama agenda but disparages its execution), I would assert that there were core problems with Barack Obama’s agenda, not just its execution. But set aside these substantive matters and there are two contradictions in Friedman’s thinking.
First, if the problem is that Barack Obama’s agenda was stymied by those to his right, how can the solution be to introduce a third party of “the radical center” to govern in a direction to Barack Obama’s right? It was centrists in the Republican and Democratic parties (aligned with congressional conservatives) who eviscerated the stronger health care reform Friedman wanted to see. It was centrists in the Republican and Democratic parties (again aligned with congressional conservatives) who prevented the consideration of energy and climate legislation that Friedman wanted to see. It is centrists in the Republican and Democratic parties (yet again aligned with congressional conservatives) who are railing against the use of government spending to restart the economy that Friedman says is too limited. It is centrists in the Republican and Democratic parties (again, again, again, again aligned with congressional conservatives) who blocked stronger financial industry reforms. If Thomas Friedman wants to see those kinds of policies passed, how could the solution possibly be to get the centrists who blocked those policies in power? If Thomas Friedman wants to see those kinds of policies passed, then he needs to support the election of more politicians who support those policies, not conservative Republicans, not centrist Democrats, not centrist Independents, and not members of some new centrist third party. If Thomas Friedman wants a third party, and if he wants to see that third party forcefully promote robust climate change, financial regulation, stimulus and health care legislation, then he needs to support the growth of a third party on the left.
Second, the problems that Thomas Friedman describes are legislative in nature, problems with the passage of bills in the U.S. Congress. In his formulation, poor President Obama has tried, really he has, and he “did the best he could do” with a Congress that stymied him at every turn. But Thomas Friedman’s solution is to have a third party candidate for President to look Barack Obama in the eye and give him and the American people a talking to. If the problems are legislative, the solution needs to be legislative. And the legislative problems Thomas Friedman identifies are problems created not just by the Republican Party of “NO” but also by the centrist Democrats who joined the Republicans in the chorus of “NO.” If Thomas Friedman wants to see the forceful promotion of robust climate change, financial regulation, stimulus spending and health care legislation, then (with the possible exclusion of “stimulus spending,” a vague term that could mean just about anything) he ought to be looking for the election of more members of Congress who support those policies — and those aren’t the centrists.
In short, Friedman wants to give America more of what he says is dragging America down. Why do people listen to Thomas Friedman? Is it the mustache?