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This was no one-off. On Meet the Press in May 2010, moments after complaining how the Internet can enable “a digital lynch mob” of people who disagree with you, Friedman fantasized about playing dictator: “What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions.” That Used To Be Us, perhaps due to Mandelbaum’s more sober presence, takes pains to insist that “our problem is not China, and our solution is not China,” but the book’s very title comes from (fittingly enough) a Barack Obama quote fretting about China’s superior rail systems and supercomputers.
Not only does China offer a tempting (if illusory) vision of enlightened scientists routing around that messy democracy stuff; it also provides what Al Qaeda can no longer quite muster: a palpably dangerous competitor with which to scare complacent Americans into collective action. That’s not an exaggeration. “When the West won the Cold War, America lost the rival that had kept us sharp, outwardly focused, and serious about nation-building at home,” Friedman and Mandelbaum lament. “As the Cold War ended,” David Frum writes at CNN.com, “the party struggle intensified.” No wonder Matt Miller’s imaginary presidential candidate is on the case: “We can no longer allow China’s brazen currency manipulation—nor its routine theft of American intellectual property—to tilt the playing field unfairly against American jobs.”
Although younger than the authors under discussion, I am old enough to remember domestic politics during the Cold War, and I’m here to tell you that there was no political consensus. Americans were deeply, bitterly divided, particularly over how and even whether to prosecute the Cold War. Richard Nixon was made vice president due to his Cold War hawkery; John F. Kennedy then tried to out–Cold War him in 1960. There were hugely divisive and deadly wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War affected nearly every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. Nostalgia for pre-1989 political comity is nostalgia for a country that never existed. And we saw under George W. Bush the many pitfalls of whipping up political consensus by demonizing a common enemy.
Perhaps strangest of all, Barack Obama is already on board this particular anti-China bandwagon and has been since long before taking the oath of office. He has even taken to using Friedman’s signature (and characteristically incoherent) line of “nation-building at home” in his stump speeches, although it did take Friedman 35 references across 15 columns to persuade White House speechwriters. What does a guy have to do to win the affection of pundits whose advice he has taken?
My Way, or the Third Way
This fall Thomas L. Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum, and Matt Miller were all talking about Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party “Bull Moose” run for president in 1912. (In fact, they were all paraphrasing the same Richard Hofstadter quote about how the role of third parties is to sting like a bee, then die.) This must have sounded like old hat to David Brooks, who during the 2000 presidential primary season was holding up T.R. and his relentless, independent-minded government activism as the model for John McCain (a suggestion that McCain, one of the most prominent do-something politicians in America, readily embraced). After losing to the more “humble” George W. Bush, Brooks and McCain were both licking their wounds in 2001, openly pondering Bull Moose–style defections from the GOP, when the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, giving America an urgent new task.
Five months later in The Weekly Standard, Brooks envisioned a “huge opportunity” to “create a governing Republican majority” under Bush, echoing “precisely the aggressive foreign policy and patriotic national service themes that John McCain struck in the 2000 primary season,” including “rogue-state rollback,” “nation-building,” and “a summons to national service.” President Bush, Brooks gushed, had finally “broken the libertarian grip on the GOP.” On the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention, Brooks performed an end-zone dance celebrating “the death of small-government conservatism,” arguing that Republicans now “must embrace” a Teddy Roosevelt–style “progressive conservatism” if they want “to become the majority party for the next few decades.” With two major Brooks-supported wars under its belt, along with a new prescription drug benefit, an important new federal education initiative, and an overall increase in government spending of more than 60 percent, you’d think that the co-author of “National Greatness Conservatism” would have expressed satisfaction with his handiwork.
Think again. “There are two major parties on the ballot,” Brooks wrote in August 2006, “but there are three major parties in America. There is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the McCain-Lieberman Party.” Like Friedman’s “radical centrists,” Frum’s “No Labels” movement, Miller’s presidential independent, and other 2011 works of political fiction, Brooks’ McCain-Lieberman Party advocated both raising taxes and cutting benefits, maintaining America’s energetic foreign policy leadership in the world (especially in the Middle East), “invest[ing] in human capital so people can compete,” and above all returning to a kind of political “civility” and seriousness worthy of a great country. It’s the dream that will not die.
“Write it down: Americans Elect,” Friedman enthused in July, talking about another premature third-party movement. “What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com 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.”
Back in reality, the only plausible independent presidential scenario in the 2012 race looks roughly like this: The Republicans nominate someone their own base distrusts and dislikes (call him “Mitt Romney”). The Tea Party and grassroots right grumbles about not having a choice. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) finishes a respectable third or even second place during the primary season, but along the way the GOP establishment trashes him and the sprawling, independent-bent political movement that has sprung up around him. Having no re-election to run for anymore, Paul decides to go rogue and run as an independent.
If the establishment centrists were at all serious about third party or independent runs, they would greet such a development with enthusiasm. But Paul is an ideologue, you see. He wants to apply his rigid libertarian philosophy to significantly scale back the federal government, instead of using flexible post-ideological pragmatism to give government more power.
On September 26, David Brooks pinned the blame for what he is now calling America’s “Lost Decade” on “the ideologues who dominate the political conversation” in the United States. “Orthodoxies,” he warned in his column, “take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. If we’re stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand.”
Fortunately for Brooks—and unfortunately for us—there is a distinct third way. Though vague on details, it involves increased taxes (especially on energy), short-term spending boosts, long-term entitlement cuts, and roughly the same foreign policy commitments as today. It calls for renewed citizen engagement, a return to political civility, and a rejection of coarse cynicism. Better teachers, trained workers, and cleaner air. Although advocated by pundits from all over the traditional political spectrum, the program is remarkably uniform when it comes to giving the government more power. Just don’t call it ideological.
Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author (along with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).