Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Putt putt

As any regular reader of the mustachioed marvel's columns is sure to suspect, the man has clearly been phoning it in for quite some time now. However, even by the sorry standards of Tom's recent work, today's column stands out as an exceptionally lazy effort.

Friedman starts out with an anecdote from a golf clinic he attended this past winter, describing how working on his putting and chipping had the unintended effect of improving his long game, as well. Thankfully, he quickly answers the obvious question this story raises: How the hell does this relate to anything other than this man's bourgeois pastimes and stunning lack of inspiration when it comes to thinking up metaphors?

Well, you see, by passing comprehensive health care reform, Barack Obama also strengthened his hand in foreign policy. Two issues with this metaphor come to mind. First, Tom, how did working on your putting and chipping also improve your long game? I'm not a golfer, so forgive me if I'm missing something, but I don't see an obvious connection. I used to be a kick-ass mini-golfer, but that skill definitely didn't translate into being able to hit a 300-yard tee shot straight down the fairway. Second, how exactly is comprehensive health care reform the political equivalent of putting and chipping? Correct me if I'm wrong, but putts and chip shots are the shortest shots in the game -- the small stuff, the finishing touches. By contrast, this bill was the centerpiece of the president's entire domestic agenda.

But OK, I'll bite. Next question: How does passage of a health care bill bring Obama foreign policy benefits? Fortunately, the mustachioed marvel has another metaphor at the ready, in the form of a quote from Osama bin Laden: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Yes, you read that correctly -- apparently when Tom can't get a hold of Nandan Nilekani or Dov Seidman for a snappy quote supporting his views, number three on the speed dial turns out to be none other than the infamous terrorist mastermind. Friedman presents this quote with absolutely nothing in the way of context, leaving us to assume that bin Laden was one of his partners at the aforementioned golf clinic.

The logic goes something like this: Heads of state across the world keep close tabs on American domestic politics, and when the president scores a major legislative victory, they realize that the president is strong, which makes them more likely to do what he wants; by contrast, when the president suffers a major legislative defeat, foreign leaders are more willing to defy him. This is a plausible argument and could make for an interesting debate. Personally, I think Friedman is vastly overstating his case (even though, if true, it would have the welcome side-effect of allowing us to say that by opposing health care reform, Republicans were working to embolden America's enemies). Call me crazy, but I just don't see the following conversation taking place in Tehran:

Ahmadinejad: "The U.S. Senate used an obscure parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation to pass a bill reforming the American health insurance system."

Ayatollah Khamenei: "Shut down the reactors."

In fairness to Tom, he does have a couple quotes from Defense Secretary Robert Gates restating his point. However, uncritically accepting quotes from people more powerful than him has gotten Friedman into trouble before. (See Nilekani, Nandan -- "world is flat" quote.)

Finally, before you even know what hit you, Friedman takes the column and turns it into a rallying cry for every policy initiative he's been pushing for the last five years, cutting and pasting his standard boilerplate about entrepreneurship, information technology, infrastructure, immigration and deficit reduction, with a reference to "soft power" thrown in for good measure. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if the last four paragraphs of this column are the auto-signature on the bottom of Tom's e-mails.

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