20 February 2012

The Third Hope: in search of an American technocrat

Thomas L. Friedman is still looking for a savior. The New York Times columnist has been calling for a third party or independent presidential campaign for some time now, but with a passionate battle underway for "control" of the Republican party and more liberals frightened by the passions on display into abject loyalty to the Democrats, Friedman's cries have fallen mostly on deaf ears. Like a good prophet, he carries on, dropping a strong hint this weekend that one David Walker would be a viable alternative to President Obama and his eventual Republican challenger.

Who? Walker served as the nation's Comptroller General under Clinton and GW Bush and now runs a think tank called the Comeback America Initiative. CAI is a "nonpartisan" group dedicated to "put[ting] government on a more prudent, sustainable and accountable fiscal path." Walker is uninterested in running for office -- he was urged to run for Sen. Lieberman's seat but decided he could be more useful as an agitator through CAI and the "No Labels" group. Walker is the image of a centrist technocrat. He takes the seemingly self-evident position -- supported by 75% of Americans according to his own polling -- that the nation needs to cut spending and raise taxes. He loses the Republicans right there, presumably, but Friedman, at least, remains convinced that Walker loses Democrats as well on the question of cuts. The columnist has infuriated Democrats by seeming to argue that the two major parties are equally to blame for the present politico-economic impasse -- check out the comments on his Times page for some of the rage. While it should be obvious that Republicans bring more bad ideas to the table than Democrats, that doesn't necessarily take the Democracy off the hook. Even if Republicans are "99%" of the problem, as one comment claims, Friedman would still insist that the Democrats' 1% of blame is crucial. He remains convinced that, just as a fanatic base prevents Republicans from seriously contemplating tax increases, a base of some kind holds Democrats back from necessary spending cuts. Walker clearly agrees with this position.

The Democrats, argues Walker, “are still in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract.” Walker praises Obama for focusing on the right metric — our overall debt-to-G.D.P. ratio — and in offering short-term ideas to enhance economic growth and address unemployment, like investments in infrastructure. But these ideas, he says, have to be “coupled with a credible and enforceable plan to address the structural deficits that threaten our nation’s future position in the world and our standard of living at home” — and there Obama continues to fall short. “He is not talking about the fundamental reforms in Medicare and Medicaid that we need, and he is not ready to touch Social Security,” says Walker, referring to Obama’s latest budget.

"Renegotiate" is a nice way to put it, but is that what Walker and Friedman really mean? Perhaps: Walker claims to have the numbers to back his belief that the public would support a "renegotiation," if only they could find honest negotiators. But it's one thing to say that 75% of Americans accept the need for spending cuts, and another to say they agree on what should be cut. Walker and Friedman take it for granted that the Democratic base would refuse any proposal to "renegotiate our social insurance contract" and punish any Democrat who proposes it. That would leave no one in a general election to propose it -- which is why Friedman wishes that Walker, who has never held or (to my knowledge) run for an elected office, would aim right for the top. That would definitely force the question of whether a consensus exists for drastic cuts in any realm of spending. Inevitably many people would argue that the cuts could or should come from other departments, particularly defense, but Friedman and Walker clearly feel that "social insurance" is draining resources from not just defense but the infrastructure and R&D projects Friedman favors. That means "social insurance" would be the inevitable battleground for "renegotiation."  For Friedman in particular, the need for a third party is based on the assumption that the Democrats would not and could never renegotiate responsibly -- it being long ago accepted that the Republicans were hopeless. This is the argument for a centrist, or perhaps even a moderate third party, a party technocratic in principle if democratic in practice. There's certainly room for such a party in the national discussion, but there's also room to question whether that party, with someone like Walker as its ideal candidate, is the one the people really need.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once again, Friedman only proves that he doesn't understand how our government works. Even if someone nominated Walker and he accepted and he won the Presidency, his power is severely limited. Unless you could also get a majority of third party/independents to take the House and Senate, Walker would be able to accomplish very little in real terms.