Thomas Friedman is the poster-child for misguided and counterproductive pining for a “centrists” third party. (More)

(Editor’s Note – Winning Progressive received a response to this post from David Walker, CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. I will share that response and Winning Progressive’s reply in Friday’s Evening Focus.)

One of the most predictable things in the world of political commentary is that New York Times columnist and Iraq War cheerleader Thomas Friedman will, on a regular basis, argue that we need a “centrist” third party in order to get things done in Washington. For example, in July 2011, Friedman used his valuable NYT space to trumpet Americans Elect, which seeks to get a third party Presidential candidate, selected by internet voting, onto the ballot in all 50 states. In October 2010, the group being promoted by Friedman was No Labels, which seeks to put partisan labels aside so that we can all somehow come together and solve the nation’s problems.

The problems with such yearning for a “centrist” third party are manifold. First, as we have explained previously, in most cases the best resolution of issues will be reached through healthy, rigorous, and respectful debate between competing ideological viewpoints, not by pretending that we can all come together by dropping partisan labels and ideology. The simple fact is that the serious economic, fiscal, and social issues that we face will be solved by serious debate and effort, not by singing Kumbaya and splitting the difference between liberal and conservative views on everything.

Second, the promoters of “centrist” third parties are often a group of Beltway insiders who are using the allure of a third party to channel discontent in a safe way that prevents the type of fundamental change that is needed.

Third, in many cases the advocates of third parties ignore the fact that one party – typically the Democrats – are already promoting addressing the policy issues that such advocates claim to be concerned about.

Finally, the presence of a “centrist” third party is likely to pull the most votes away from whichever of the two political parties is closest to the views of the third party. In this case, President Obama and the Democrats have shown time after time that they are far more reasonable and willing to compromise than are the Republicans, which means that a “centrist” third party is likely to suck far more votes away from President Obama than from the GOP candidate. As such, the “centrist” third party effort would increase the chance of the most reactionary conservative candidate in the race defeating President Obama.

A perfect example of this disconnect between what third party advocates claim to want on matters of policy and what their promotion of a third party could cause is seen through two recent Friedman columns. Earlier this month, Mr. Friedman surprisingly offered a column titled “We Need A Second Party,” in which he set forth the argument that the GOP has gone far off track by becoming a reactionary party that is “captive of conflicting ideological bases,” rather than a conservative party offering serious debate on the pressing issues facing our nation. In the column, Mr. Friedman wondered if perhaps the GOP “shouldn’t just sit this election out” and whether “maybe the best thing would be for [the GOP] to get crushed in this election and forced into a fundamental rethink.”

Unfortunately, over the past weekend Mr. Friedman returned to his obsession of promoting a “centrist” third party. In his post titled “A Third Voice for 2012,” Mr. Friedman promotes the idea that we need to have a third candidate, such as David Walker of the Comeback America Initiative, to “offer sensible solutions” for “getting America’s fiscal house in order.” The Comeback America Initiative is a purportedly non-partisan effort to “promote fiscal responsibility and sustainability.” Mr. Walker, the former U.S. Comptroller General, previously ran the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which is focused primarily on attempting to privatize Social Security. Walker’s association with Peterson, and his continued focus on “reforming” Social Security when Social Security does not contribute to the deficit and needs only minor tweaks to remain solvent for the next 75 years, raises serious red flags about whether this purportedly “non-partisan” effort to reduce the deficit is little more than a conservative Trojan horse.

But the more fundamental problem with Mr. Friedman’s column is that it relies on a false “pox-on-both-houses view” that is simply not based in reality. In particular, Mr. Friedman suggests a third party candidate is needed because “both parties” are purportedly not interested in restoring fiscal sanity.

But the facts are that one party – the Democrats – has shown a willingness to address long term fiscal issues. Unlike under the W. Bush Administration, major legislative proposals under President Obama have almost always been fully paid for. The Obama Administration has, at the risk of angering its base, proposed far more spending cuts than many progressives, including us here at Winning Progressive, would like to see. President Obama has also proposed tax policies that rightly ask the wealthy to pay their fair share again, rather than buying into the false conservative mantra that cutting taxes will somehow reduce the deficit.

And the Obama Administration is focused on rationalizing and reducing the escalating cost of health care, which is the primary contributor to the long term fiscal issues that we face. As we’ve discussed previously, the Democrats’ health care reform legislation found $500 billion in savings over a decade by phasing out unnecessary industry subsidies under the Medicare Advantage program, and beginning to implement comparative effectiveness approaches that help ensure we are getting the best bang for our buck. President Obama has also proposed to increase, such comparative effectiveness, strengthen the Independent Payment Advisory Board, and to allow Medicare to negotiate for lower prices, which would achieve even greater savings.

The GOP response has been to promote tax cuts for the wealthy as their number one priority, and to fearmonger about Democratic efforts to rationalize health care spending. In the place of reducing health care costs, Republicans seek to “solve” the fiscal issues caused by rising health care costs by abolishing Medicare and block granting Medicaid. That approach would simply shift those costs to individuals in the more expensive private insurance market. None of this is surprising given that the GOP has spent the last 30 years driving up deficits in a cynical effort to generate political support for undermining core government programs.

The problem with Mr. Friedman’s approach is that falsely treating both parties as the same on fiscal issues (or virtually any other issue) will simply help put into power whichever of the two parties is less serious about reasonably addressing those issues. In short, by splitting the vote of people who are interested in reasonably approaching long term fiscal problems, a third party candidate would increase the changes that the GOP, which has no interest in fiscal responsibility, will come out top. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Friedman rightly focused on the threat that putting the GOP back into the White House would pose. Yet he then undermines that focus by promoting a third party fantasy that would help do exactly that.

In a two-party system, a far better approach on fiscal issues is to elect the side that is more serious about finding ways to responsibly address long term health care costs and push them to do even more, rather than promoting a destructive and self-defeating fantasy about third party candidates.