In Memoriam: Tom Friedman’s Radical Idea

May 16, 2012   ·   1 Comments

Source: NYTX

Tom Friedman

By Marie Burns:

Hitting from left and right, New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat smacked down their colleague Tom Friedman yesterday. Of course it would have been bad form (and reputedly against Times policy) to mention Friedman by name, so Krugman and Douthat did not.

The occasion for the joyous friedmanfreude:

Americans Elect, the deep-pocketed nonprofit group that set out to nominate a centrist third-party presidential ticket, admitted early Tuesday that its ballyhooed online nominating process had failed…. Just after a midnight deadline Monday, the group acknowledged that its complicated online nominating process had failed to generate sufficient interest to push any of the candidates who had declared an interest in its nomination over the threshold in its rules. – Ken Vogel of Politico

Friedman has been the head cheerleader for Americans Elect, a fake centrist group “funded by leveraged-buyout tycoon Peter Ackerman and other deep-pocketed centrists.” Friedman has been advocating for a third-party presidential candidate since at least April 2006. He began flakking for Americans Elect last July in a column titled “Make Way for the Radical Center.” As recently as last month, Friedman was still urging New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take up the mantle, partly because Friedman was of the impression that a president who had been a big-city mayor would know how to fix the potholes in front of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. (The so-called potholes which jolted Friedman on his way to Amtrak’s Acela, were not potholes at all, but the result of road improvements already underway, a little detail which escaped Friedman’s notice. As Steve Benen of “The Rachel Maddow Show” remarked, “… the road is in bad shape because that traffic circle is currently under construction – it’s being repaired as part of the kind of infrastructure investment Friedman ostensibly supports.”)

Back in February of this year, Friedman’s favorite Americans Elect candidate was his friend David Walker, a protege and former employee of deficit-hawk billionaire Pete Peterson, who has, as Ryan Grim and Paul Blumenthal write in today’s Huffington Post, “spent nearly half a billion in Washington targeting Social Security and Medicare.” Walker’s last known sighting was arguing with Paul Krugman on a silly ABC News panel on economic challenges. In a post-panel post titled “We’re Doomed,” Krugman snarked, “Everything makes David Walker think of the need for entitlement reform.”

When Friedman went on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC “Morning Joe” show, he attempted to recruit Scarborough to take the job. Alec MacGillis of The New Republic found Friedman’s search for a third-party candidate so amusing that he suggested Friedman pull a Dick Cheney and conclude that his exhaustive search has revealed that the best “third-choice savior” should be – Tom Friedman. Ed Kilgore of Washington Monthly still thinks Friedman for President would be a good idea:

Under AE’s elaborate rules, [Friedman would] presumably have to disclose a party affiliation and then choose a running-mate from a different party. But he could certainly self-identify as a member of the Friedman Party, and then choose a running-mate from the Party of Richard Cohen or the Party of Robert Samuelson or the Party of David Brooks. It would be a Very Serious Ticket.

Friedman ended his first column on Americans Elect with this prediction:

Write it down: Americans Elect. What did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out.

This was the same prediction Friedman had made in an October 2010 New York Times column: “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.” Write that down. The next time Friedman makes a prediction, you’ll know not to write it down

Happily, most third-party efforts – like Americans Elect – fizzle before they create havoc. Remember Unity ’08? No Labels 2010? You don’t? No Surprise. Those that do get a presidential candidate on the November ballot never get a winning candidate. Instead, these third-party candidates act only as spoilers. See Gore v. Bush and Nader, 2000; Clinton v. Pappy Bush & Perot, 1992, etc. (Steven Taylor of Outside the Beltway, in response to one of Friedman’s third-party appeals, explained some of the institutional factors that mitigate third-party presidential candidates.) So it is not surprising that pundits left and right gleefully watched the demise of yet another third-party effort.

Besides, Americans Elect was a very suspect operation. As Steve Benen wrote yesterday,

Americans Elect talked about bold, democratic principles, but it collected tens of millions of dollars in secret donations, then built a series of ‘anti-democratic measures’ into Americans Elect’s structure: ‘the power of a board to set aside (subject to a veto override from “voters”) the People’s Choice in order to create a legitimately “balanced, centrist” ticket, whatever that means.’ When it came time for the convention, organizers found they were missing two rather important elements: candidates and voters.

Obama campaign guru David Axelrod once characterized Americans Elect as “uber-democracy meets back room bosses.”

Paul Krugman wrote in his eulogy for Americans Elect, “Basically, about seven people were actually excited about the venture – all of them political pundits.” Rebecca Elliot of BuzzFeed provides the name of the seven pundits in a post titled “7 Very Bad Predictions about Americans Elect.” At the top of her list: Tom Friedman’s July 2011 prediction cited above. Krugman published his post a few hours after Elliot’s post went up. Coincidence, no doubt. Krugman – as have many others – points out that the centrist president Friedman craves has all the same characteristics and policy positions as Barack Obama.

This is a point, I should add, that Friedman himself conceded when he rolled out his case for Americans Elect: “President Obama should dump the Democrats and run as an independent, which he is, at heart, anyway.” That’s right. Obama should abandon a party that would (mostly) stand behind his legislative agenda, to run as an independent so that not a single member of Congress would pay any attention to him. A brilliant strategy to get things done in Washington.

Krugman made the same point in a blogpost last September, and in that one he did name Friedman. Krugman wrote: “… the hypothetical position self-proclaimed centrists want somebody to take — Michael Bloomberg, a chastened Obama, whatever – is almost always the position actually held by the Democratic party. But to seem ‘balanced’, the pundits involved have to ignore that inconvenient fact.” Krugman goes on to cite one of Friedman’s numerous columns urging a deficit-reduction “Grand Bargain.” Of Friedman’s proposal, Krugman wrote,

… what Tom describes as the centrist position both parties know they should adopt, but refuse to do because of partisanship on both sides, is in fact the actually existing position of the Democratic party – a position that Republicans denounce as ‘socialist.’ I know that admitting that Barack Obama is already the candidate of centrists’ dreams would be awkward, would make it hard to adopt the stance that both sides are equally at fault. But that is the truth.

Krugman elaborated on that theme in his post yesterday, but since he didn’t specifically name Friedman, he was a bit more frank:

Because there exists in America a small class of professional centrists, whose stock in trade is denouncing the extremists in both parties and calling for a middle ground. And this class cannot, as a professional matter, admit that there already is a centrist party in America, the Democrats — that the extremism they decry is all coming from one side of the political fence. Because if they admitted that, they’d just be moderate Democrats, with no holier-than-thou pedestal to stand on. [Emphasis added.]

Swooping down from the right, Ross Douthat published a “Campaign Stops” post late last night which he began,

‘Third parties are like bees,’ the intellectual historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955. ‘Once they have stung, they die.’ It’s an aphorism that aptly describes the anti-slavery and anti-immigrant parties of the mid-nineteenth century, the Populists and Progressives who ushered out the Gilded Age, as well as more recent third-party standard bearers, from George Wallace to Ross Perot. All of these movements and figures influenced American politics dramatically, before fading away and leaving the basic two-party duopoly intact. Of late, though, our potential third parties have been skipping the stinging part and going straight to the dying.

Douthat writes of Americans Elect: “From the (inarguable) premise that the public is wearied by the failures of the political and economic establishment, it leaped to the (preposterous) conclusion that the country is crying out for a presidential candidate who mostly represents the interests and values of exactly that same establishment.” You will, of course, Tom Friedman making precisely that claim Douthat dubs “preposterous.” Here is Friedman in his October 2, 2010 column:

There is a revolution brewing in the country, and it is not just on the right wing but inthe 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.

Preposterous! Douthat and Krugman agree. As Krugman wrote yesterday, “Actual voters couldn’t care less…. Outside that class [of professional centrists], the large number of people who believe in all the good stuff the centrists claim to favor are, you know, going to vote for Obama. The large number of people who don’t believe in any of that are going to vote for Romney.”

“What’s more,” Douthat writes, “given the record of the last decade, disaffected Americans have very good reasons to be suspicious when their elites promotes bipartisanship as an end unto itself.” After all, the Iraq War, the housing bubble and the “hated Wall Street bailouts” were all brought to you with wide bipartisan Congressional support, Douthat notes. “Why, then, would Americans fed up with the two party system entrust their loyalties to a nascent movement that promises that this time, this time, a high-minded, bipartisan elite will get things right?” Douthat notes that actual popular movements have flowered from the far-right and the far-left – the Tea Party and Occupy movements. Douthat envisions a candidate who could arouse these two groups would be a “disreputable,” “eccentric” demagogue: “(Pat Buchanan meets Ralph Nader),” definitely not the kind of Mike Bloomberggy, Olympia Snowesque candidate Friedman and Americans Elect had in mind.

When I linked the news of the Americans Elect fail on my Website Reality Chex, I wrote, “Somewhere in the world, Tom Friedman is weeping.” I was wrong. One pundit who did not comment on Americans Elect: Tom Friedman. Rather, he has moved effortlessly onto the next “radical” idea as if the last one never existed (not that he won’t revive it come the next election cycle). His New York Times column today is on “the college education revolution.”

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (1)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    It was and is hard to believe that Friedman and friends were serious. I rather assumed, with no knowledge of the money actually spent, that this was just journalists making toothless arguments to fill space.

    R I P Americans Elect.



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