vision 2020

No, Utopian Centrism Will Not Save Us From the Coronavirus

In Tom Friedman’s dream “unity cabinet,” AOC would report to Mitt Romney. That should work out well. Photo: Getty Images

You knew somebody had to propose this as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, and if you had three guesses about the identity of the author you might well have nailed it. Yes, New York Times columnist and noted promoter of utopian centrism Thomas Friedman has suggested that at the 2020 Democratic National Convention Joe Biden name a “national unity cabinet” to signal an end to the bad old “hyperpartisanship” of the previous era.

Unfortunately, Friedman’s opening pitch sounds a bit more like a bipartisan, mutual self-protection scheme than a plea for genuine unity:

[W]hile most people are playing nice right now managing this virus, the wreckage, pain and anger it will leave behind will require megadoses of solidarity and healing from the top.

And even if we get to the other side of this crisis by January, there are going to be a set of wrenching debates around who got bailed out and who didn’t and around how much civil liberty we should sacrifice to track and quarantine Covid-19 carriers until there is a vaccine. If handled on a partisan basis, those issues will rip our country apart.

Politicians gotta have each other’s backs, see. But even if you get past that jarring note, you can perhaps get into the spirit of Friedman’s plea for a “political system to mirror the best in us rather than to continue to exacerbate the worst,” which presumably means parking your political party, your ideology, and perhaps your values at the door and pitching in to the common cause of having a common cause. Certainly Democrats and a handful (since that’s all there are) of Never Trump Republicans can agree with Friedman’s condemnation of the kind of government the current management has given us, with POTUS’s divisive efforts to squeak through to reelection by suppressing votes and playing the Electoral College angles, even as he reaps the fruits of his demagogic disdain for science and his contempt for government itself.

But as becomes clear when he insists on actually naming Biden’s “unity cabinet” for him, the bipartisanship Friedman calls for is largely imaginary.

In a list of 20 suggested appointees there are three identifiable Republicans: Mitt Romney at State, Mike DeWine at OMB, and Andy Karsner at Energy. Karsner is best known as someone who reliably helps Democrats make climate change proposals look bipartisan, but he is far distant from his ostensible party on any discernible energy-policy issues. Romney famously didn’t support Trump in 2016 and voted for his removal from office earlier this year, making himself a pariah to other Republicans, but also hasn’t notably moved away from the GOP on any significant policy matters, particularly on the foreign-policy issues that Friedman would place in his hands. DeWine is a sort of flavor of the month as the rare Republican governor who has been aggressive about a coronavirus response, but placing this opponent of Obamacare who recently proposed 20 percent cuts in his own state’s budget at OMB sounds like a recipe for a train wreck rather than bipartisanship.

My favorite feature of Friedman’s fantasy Cabinet is that it would place Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the U.N. as our ambassador, reporting to Romney as secretary of State. That should be an easy partnership. Even among the Democrats, there are some strange configurations, like Wall Street’s own Mike Bloomberg at Treasury cheek by jowl with Elizabeth Warren as “secretary of oversight for the trillions of dollars in emergency coronavirus spending.”

We are also supposed to believe that a Cabinet that includes Warren, AOC, Ro Khanna, and Al Gore (at EPA, no less) will “fracture the Trump/McConnell/evangelical/Limbaugh/Fox/G.O.P.” and somehow create “a healthy conservative party.”

This whole scheme is like a piñata — you can whack it from almost every direction — but the core problem is Friedman’s belief that Americans crave token bipartisanship and ideological incoherence. Donald Trump is not some evil wizard whose spell over the GOP can be broken by recruiting a handful of heretics and pariahs that the vast mast majority of rank-and-file Republican despise. Even though you can argue he initially conducted a hostile takeover of his party, Republicans love him now with a virtually unprecedented passion. The way to rid that once-proud party of Trumpism is to beat him in November and quickly build a government that knows what it wants and can provide stable leadership. And the shortest path for Joe Biden to get to that goal before and after November is to unite his own party and develop a Democratic plan for health security and economic recovery. If a few Republicans dislike Trump enough to come along for the ride, that’s fine.

For some reason people like Tom Friedman struggle to understand or accept that partisan polarization is in no small part attributable to genuine difference of opinion over economics, the role of government, the legal system, America’s place in the word, and, yes, culture and very basic values. We’ve been getting a good bitter taste of Republican rule over the last several years (reminding us of the good bitter taste of the last Republican administration, benign as it sometimes now seems), and if Americans want to overthrow it, well, that’s why we have two, not one, major party.

No, Utopian Centrism Will Not Save Us From the Coronavirus