Obama loyalists often say: “Those Republicans are so bad. They’ve tried to block us at every turn.” Yes, the G.O.P. has tried to stymie Obama; it’s been highly destructive. But the people who keep pointing that out don’t have an answer for the simplest next question: Why have they gotten away with it? My view: It’s because too many Americans in the center-left/center-right do not feel in their guts that Obama is leading — is offering an economic plan at the scale of the problem that has a chance for bipartisan support and that makes them want to get up out of their chairs and do battle.
The Obama loyalists would probably answer that they have a plan, only Friedman doesn't recognize it. Nor, Friedman suggests, do millions of Americans. What would these people recognize as a plan. Friedman sets some impressionist criteria: a proper plan will get 'voters to react in three ways: 1) “Now that sounds like it will address the problem, and both parties are going to feel the pain.” 2) “That plan seems fair: the rich pay more, but everyone pays something.” 3) “Wow, Obama did something hard and risky. He got out ahead of Congress and Romney. That’s leadership. I’m giving him a second look."'
The question for Democrats is: why doesn't Friedman see this in what we offer. I think the answer comes down to the desired second reaction: "everyone pays something." In a word: austerity. Friedman's suspicion seems to be that Democrats aren't really as interested in "shared sacrifice" as they claim. They obviously want the rich to sacrifice, but who else, really? Here's what Friedman sees:
When the Grand Bargain talks with John Boehner fell apart, Obama retreated to his base when he should have rallied the center by laying out — in detail — the Grand Bargain the country needs. That would have forced Romney to speak in detail about his plan — the Paul Ryan plan — and reveal it for what it is: a radical plan that few Americans would embrace if they understood it. Then people would see a real choice: a tough-minded-but-centrist plan with real bipartisan support versus a radical plan to gut Medicare, give more tax cuts to the already wealthy and drastically shrink discretionary spending so eventually nothing is left for education, veterans, roads, research, the F.B.I. or the poor.
Notice that most of this excerpt is a strong denunciation of the Republican party -- but notice also the damning phrase, "retreated to his base." This gets to the heart of Friedman's beef with the Democratic party. He blames the failure of all grand bargains so far not just to Republican obstructionism and fanaticism but also on the presumed unwillingness to compromise -- to "pay something" -- on the part of a nebulous Democratic "base," or else on Democratic leaders' unwillingness to risk alienating the same base by making the "tough minded" case to them for compromise or paying something. Obviously Friedman is describing something real. Anyone who has seen anyone else ask, "why should the poor have to sacrifice?" or posed the question himself must admit it. But is this the attitude of the "base" of the Democratic party, defined either as its most reliable voters or its most generous donors? More importantly, Friedman's account begs the question: how crucial to his hoped-for recovery is it that this base "pay something," and how decisive actually has this base's presumed refusal been in the government's failure to achieve a grand bargain? Given what we all know well about Democratic constituents' unwillingness to hold their representatives truly accountable, how much do elected officials really fear their base? At most, they probably fear its apathy, but aren't Democrats always fishing for independents and centrists to make up for that? As for whether this base is unwilling to share in the sort of sacrifice Friedman recommends, and whether their failure to sacrifice will ruin us, that's a question of priorities nearly as much as it is a question of resources or sustainability. Those who ask why the poor should "pay something" have every right to point to money being spent profligately on other projects (foreign wars, drug war, etc.) and question the priority or utility of those projects. The ultimate issue between Friedman and the Democrats, or between him and the "left" in general, is whether he's right (or "right") in his insistence that "everyone pays something." The left doesn't necessarily have a trump card for this debate -- the poor aren't always right -- but they definitely have every right to challenge Friedman when he takes the necessity of austerity for granted.