Grand Bargains, Friedman, and the Problem with Moderates

Thomas Friedman, I suppose, thinks of himself as a moderate.  Maybe like Matt Miller from KCRW’s Left,Right, and Center who advocates for “radcial centricism” (or something like that).  This species of thinking imagines that the “left” and “right” can only be correct up to a point.  Hence, the one good path towards progress must, by definition, be some thing “in between.”  Friedman, especially, excels at taking what seem like irreconcilable differences and with his wise words, turn them into new consensuses that if only the irrationally passionate partisans of left and right would accept would lead us into a shiny tomorrow.

Friedman’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is a classic.  He argues that the great debate of our times is over “which capitalism?” instead of “which -ism?” Fair enough.  In this context, he defines “American Capitalism” as- that’s right- the perfectly moderate mix of opposites, of public and private.  I suppose that European “safety-net” socialism is unbalanced by inference from his argument.

To regain our American mojo we need to rebalance public and private. Hence, he calls for a series of “grand compromises.”  Between cutting the federal budget and raising taxes.  Between paying  for “nursery schools and nursing homes.” (Nice line).  Between labor and management.  Between environmentalists and extractive industries.  And so on.  Between Dogs and Cats.  Yankees and Red Sox.  No, not the last two.

I find this seductive.  Yes, let us come together and find common ground.  What a story: can we not have politicians who can use language, influence, guile, and all their dark arts to bring these differing parties to Friedman’s round table of Grand Compromises?  I want to be in that story!

But I am afraid it is a fairy tale.  His call for radical moderation is premised on the two sides being a) roughly equal in power and b) willing to engage in constructive compromise.  To my eyes and ears and memory of US politics since the 1980s and especially since Gingrich’s 1994 Congress, neither a nor b hold. 

If any of the two sides in his grand compromise where to come to his round table and meet in the middle, in every one of his  policy areas, the left, the progressives, the advocates for a fairer, more compassionate society would loose ground.  The advocates for greater wealth at any cost, for a rawer capitalism, for crippling government, have the upper hand.  THEY HAVE BEEN WINNING.  Every president in either party since Johnson has been to the right f his predecessor in his party. (The link argues it is only Republicans, but I want to check that). Nixon right of Eisenhower. Carter right of Johnson.  Reagan right of Nixon.  And so on.  My high school classmate spouted off on Facebook at the “socialist” Obama.  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.  The socialist Obama who delivered Romney’s health insurance reform and left Wall Street’s wolves in charge of the henhouse.  Uh-huh.

I’d do a grand compromise on labor and management.  Here is mine: decouple health care and retirement from employment.  Build public options for coverage alongside the marketplace.  Free unions to organize.  Tax wealth and work more equally.  Raise the cap on payroll taxes.  Eliminate sales taxes and their endemic loopholes and move to a consumption tax.  Equalize minimum wage laws with all free trade partners.  Peg minimum wage to inflation.  Maybe eliminate corporate tax rates and shift that tax burden to wealth.

I can’t imagine the other side considering any of these.

But it doesn’t matter.  Because the right in America is not interested in compromise but only conquest.  The ever-more stringent litmus tests in Republican primaries, tests that have led Romney to renounce his own record in MA, have led all the candidates to toss more red meat to its base, points to the utter lack of interest in the politics of compromise.  Democrats in general, and even many liberals or progressives, always fall into the being the adult in the room trap.  When we govern, we try and fix problems, try to make compromises.  Then the other side wins by running against government.  They win, smash it all, and then leave the next lefty or Democrat to pick up the mess while they campaign on what a mess it is.  Reagan ran up massive military spending deficits and left Clinton to fix it.  Bush turned a surplus into a deficit through tax cuts and unfunded wars and drugs leaving Obama a broken economy and a huge hole in the deficit.

So, Friedman imagines that somehow the left will come to the table and make a grand compromise from a weak position, giving up ideas and issues that we won fifty to 100 years ago, with partners who sneer and eschew nay idea of compromise.

No thanks.  I’d rather fight on and build more power to change the terms of that grand compromise.

The problem is that the moderates like Friedman will write their next column about how nasty politics has gotten and how BOTH sides should stop being so mean.  His answer of a grand compromise is a lose-lose to me.

So, I’ll take a fighting chance instead of a loosing compromise.  I will still raise a glass with Friedman, though, and dream of a lovely world where his compromises could be worked out.  Sounds like a nice place.


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