New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's call Wednesday for a third party candidate to run for president yielded an unusually high-volume round of mustache-bashing from bloggers, but this is all part of a cycle that's beginning to feel pretty rote. Friedman wrote a column calling on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run as an independent and "give our two-party system the shock it needs." Slate's Dave Weigel wrote a sensible takedown noting that "the discriminating reader turns and flees" when Friedman mentions the words "third party." The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins writes more bluntly, "NO YOU DIDN'T JUST DO THAT, THOMAS FRIEDMAN!" Others weighed in, as well.
All told, it felt like Friedman had pogo-sticked over some line he'd previously just toed, but we didn't feel this column was that large a departure from his normally unpersuasive calls for a third party to save us all. The chief complaint today is that Friedman advocates for a third party with a platform that's pretty much identical to President Obama's, just more effectual. As Weigel writes, "There's some rogue DNA strand that prevents basically big/good government types like Friedman from admitting that their policy preferences would be satisfied by a party that currently exists."
It's a flaw Friedman's shown before, and one critics have pointed out before, too. So what's behind all the attention we're paying today? Our guess is that people are slapping their foreheads because Friedman's recent columns had shown something like progress. It seemed like he'd woken up from a dream in February when he wrote, "I've argued that maybe we need a third party to break open our political system. But that’s a long shot. What we definitely and urgently need is a second party — a coherent Republican opposition." A long shot! How reasonable. He kept the streak going in March when he wrote, "Special interest money is out of control, and we lack any credible Third Party that could capture enough of the center to force both Democrats and Republicans to compete for votes there." He's not exactly conceding that what he's looking for is what Obama's selling, but at least he continues to sound lucid in his awareness that a third party isn't "credible." But then came today's column with its familiar calls for a "shake-up." And thus, the disappointed blogger backlash.
This is actually becoming something of a familiar cycle. Friedman called for a third party back in 2006, for example, writing, "The right candidate with the right message on energy might be able to drive a bus right up the middle of the U.S. political scene today — lose the far left and the far right — and still maybe, just maybe, win a three-way election." Well, in 2008 that turned out to be ... flat-out wrong. And Friedman cooled it and returned to other issues for the 2008 election. But then in 2010, he got started with the third-party talk, only to wake up to a reality check in February. And now, he's back again. Call it the ebb and flow of Tom Freidman's third party delusions. Maybe he'll be right one day and a third party will emerge, but then he'll be like those guys who called the housing market bubble burst in the '90s. Timing is everything...
We've been through this before with Friedman on other issues. The "Friedman unit" was a satirical phrase one blogger coined to describe the period of time -- six months to be exact -- between assertions that "the next six months" in Iraq would be critical. Bloggers liked the idea and continued to point it out when Friedman was guilty of it. With this latest bout of remembering—then forgetting—that a third party movement isn't really catching on, it seems we've found the new "Friedman unit" for a new decade, i.e. that thing he does repeatedly that critics love to bash. Don't expect to see him stop shifting his opinion on the likelihood of a Third Party groundswell, and don't expect the Friedman-bashing blogosphere to quiet down soon either. This cycle could go on for some time.