Mr. Village by David Atkins

Mr. Village

by David Atkins

The ways in which reading Thomas Friedman is infuriating are as deep as the ocean and endless as the horizon. Whether it's resorting to anecdotes from taxi drivers to prove a point, or repeating disproven economic shibboleths, Friedman is exhibit A in imbuing the most trite conventional wisdom with false profundity.

All of this turf has been covered extensively by other critics. But what I find most frustrating about reading Friedman is that he does appear from time to time to have a somewhat clearer view of actual reality than most Village pundits. But no sooner does it appear that he has finally seen the light from the way he sets up an argument, than he turns round and reinforces conventional wisdom with a passion that defies logic and common sense.

Consider his latest opinion piece. He starts by declaring the necessity for President Obama to use the bully pulpit:

President Obama has a clear choice on how to approach the 2012 election: He can spend all his energy defining Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or whoever ends up as the Republican nominee in as ugly a way as possible, or he can spend all his energy defining the future in as credible a way as possible. If he spends his energy defining his Republican opponent, there is a chance the president will win with 50.00001 percent of the vote and no mandate to do what needs doing. If he spends his time defining the future in a credible way and offering a hard, tough, realistic pathway to get there, he will not only win, but he will have a mandate to take the country where we need to go.

OK, fine. The nation needs direction, and the President in is a position to provide it. And?

I voted for Barack Obama, and I don’t want my money back. He’s never gotten the credit he deserves for bringing the economy he inherited back from the brink of a depression. He’s fought the war on terrorism in a smart and effective way. He’s making health care possible for millions of Americans with pre-existing conditions, and he saved the auto industry. This is big stuff. But, as important as all of these achievements are, they pale in comparison to the defining challenge of Obama’s presidency: Can he put the country on a sustainable economic recovery path at a time when, if we fail, it could be the end of the American dream?

Fair enough. Obviously, progressive critics will take issue with this characterization of the Obama presidency, but there is a lot in this argument that resonates. So clearly, in order to boost economic recovery, the President will need a bold vision that stimulates demand and creates jobs. Right?

So far, this is a clearer encapsulation of the political moment than most Village pundits seem to have a handle on. But then comes the facepalm moment.

I believe the best way for Obama to do that is by declaring today that he made a mistake in spurning his own deficit reduction commission, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, and is now adopting Simpson-Bowles — which already has Republican and Democratic support — as his long-term fiscal plan to be phased in after a near-term stimulus. If he did that, he would win politically and create a national consensus that would trump his opponents, right and left.

And with this, Friedman comes to the brink of reality, only to step back and make a full-fledged retreat into the comfortable land of the conventional.

There is nothing popular about any of the deficit commission plans on the table. Cutting Social Security and Medicare is wildly unpopular even among Republicans. Cutting defense polls poorly or with marginal approval even among Democrats, no matter how bloated its budget becomes. Simpson-Bowles is dead on arrival--as it should be--because most of what is in it is politically toxic on both sides of the aisle.

But that's not all. Friedman sees the problem only to offer the wrong solution twice in the same op-ed:

Obama aides argue that so many G.O.P. lawmakers are committed to making his presidency fail, or have signed pledges to an antitax cult, that they would never buy into any grand bargain. I think that is true for a lot of Republicans in Congress. But I have some questions: Why are the Republicans getting away with this? Why are so many independents and even Democrats who voted for Obama sitting on their hands? Obama owns the bully pulpit of the presidency and he’s losing to Grover Norquist? Also, assuming it is all true about the G.O.P., how can Obama trump them? I think he can, if he leads in a new way.

So Friedman acknowledges that the Republicans are nuts, many of them in the grip of the Norquist cult, and that attempting to negotiate is useless. He also acknowledges that no matter how crazy the GOP becomes, they continue to get away with it.

But instead of taking the obvious conclusions from those facts--that the President should be unafraid to champion popular progressive policies, since the GOP will accept nothing less than total victory from any negotiation, and that a supine press will allow them to remain intransigent and careen ever rightward without calling them on their extremism--Friedman moves in precisely the opposite direction, with nonsensical results:

I think America’s broad center understands very clearly that the country is in trouble and that the Republican Party has gone nuts. But when they look at Obama on the deficit, they feel something is missing. People know leadership when they see it — when they see someone taking a political risk, not just talking about doing so, not just saying, “I’ll jump if the other guy jumps.” In times of crisis, leaders jump first, lay out what truly needs to be done to fix the problem, not just to win re-election, and by doing so earn the right to demand that others do the same.

What would it look like if the president was offering such leadership? First, he’d be proposing a deficit-cutting plan that matches the scale of our problem — one with substantial tax reform and revenue increases, a gasoline tax, deep defense cuts and cutbacks to both Social Security and Medicare. That is the Simpson-Bowles plan, and it should be Obama’s new starting point for negotiations. The deficit plan Obama put out last September is nowhere near as serious. “It is watered-down Simpson-Bowles,” said MacGuineas. “Most people don’t even know it exists.”

Second, he’d offer a plan in which the wealthy have to pay their fair share and more, because they’ve had a great two decades. But everyone, including the middle class, has to contribute something. This has to be a national effort. Third, he would offer a plan that is aspirational. It would not just be a roadmap to balancing the budget but to making America great again through reignited economic growth.

This is so stupid that it boggles the mind it even made it to print. The knock on President Obama since the beginning of his term has been that he is too keen to compromise, and that he begins negotiations by giving everything away in advance just to show goodwill. His negotiation tactics are so weak and so acquiescent to his opponents, that it has led many to fairly question whether it's not a issue of poor negotiating skills so much as an active desire to champion conservative policies.

The American Public does understand that the President isn't leading as strongly as he should. But the notion that he should be leading in the direction of more compromise and more unpopular cuts to popular programs is simply nuts. It's not born out by any data, but rather by grandiose wishful thinking. And that doesn't even touch Friedman's request for higher taxes on the poor and middle class, which is not just bad policy but politically suicidal.

Finally, as Paul Krugman pointed out, there is nothing in the Bowles-Simpson plan that promises economic recovery. The economy is not petrified of debt. It's petrified of lack of demand, which will only be hurt worse by cuts to the safety net and regressive tax increases.

But then there's the kicker:

My gut says that if the president lays out such a plan — one that begins with him taking all the political risks on himself and then demanding the G.O.P. and his own party follow — he will be both defining himself and the future in a way that would earn him so much centrist support and respect that it would leave every possible Republican opponent in the dust, no matter how obstructionist they are or want to be.

That would be a halfway intelligent paragraph, except for the fact that every single statement in it is wrong. First, the progressive base would abandon him. Second, "centrists," as defined as those with views in between the Democratic and Republican parties, don't sway elections. There are actually precious few of them. "Moderates" and "independents" sometimes do--but so-called "moderates" and "independents" aren't so much in the middle, as have views that lean GOP on some issues, and Dem on others. One thing moderates and independents do agree on is that cutting Social Security and Medicare is a bad thing, and so are tax increases on the middle class.

In fact, it was Obama's embrace of the austerity train that made his poll numbers take a massive hit, and it was only when the President began to take a more aggressive stance promoting jobs and progressive rhetoric that his poll numbers began to rise again. President Obama, far from attracting moderates and independents by embracing austerity commissions, will in fact repel them. We don't need to theorize about this; we only need look at recent history.

And third, Friedman only need look at his statement two paragraphs previous to see that no matter how far backward the President bent to enforce austerity on America, the GOP would move the goalposts ever rightward, and the media would again portray the situation as hyperpartisanship on both sides. Even if Friedman's astoundingly wrong assumptions about economics and political bases had any merit, his misunderstanding of Republicans and the media alone makes a mockery of his thesis.

In the analogy of Plato's cave, most Village pundits spend their entire careers pointing to and tracking the shadows they all create on the wall. But Friedman is all the more annoying because he occasionally steps forward into the light, only to run for cover back into the darkness, and insist that his visions of the sun only go to further prove the importance and relevance of the cavern shadows.

It's a wonder that anyone with even a moderately advanced intelligence can read most of his columns and come away with anything but exasperation.