I am going to start off here with a personal anecdote. I was taking a cab the other day in, I don't know, let's say Denver. The cab driver was a most talkative fellow, and like most English-speaking people throughout the world, agreed heartily with all of my preconceived notions about politics, the economy and whatnot, and was full of pithy things to say on all of them.
I was discussing with my cab driver the dullness of the news cycle, and how difficult it was to come up with anything to say during holiday times or other periods when Congress was taking a break from their usual task of mucking things up. Most Americans don't realize just how difficult the life of a political writer can be, but this cab driver did, and empathized with my plight. "It indeed sounds difficult," he said. "You know what I think you should do? I think you should just phone it in."
This was a novel thought to me, but I was impressed with the reasonableness of the suggestion. Why not? The requirement that I write something about politics even when there is nothing worthwhile to say may be absolute, but there's nothing to say that I can't simply phone it in. No matter how inane a column may be, it still has a place in discourse, and there are precious few people in the world who can really differentiate between a deep, profound idea and a staggeringly stupid one. And so I thanked my cab driver for the tip, and here we are.
It strikes me that the fault for all our current problems in Washington lies equally with both parties. That probably is not technically true, but examining it at any deeper level would require actual work, on my part, and if I chose to single out one party or the other as being more to blame then people from that party would probably get very angry with me, the next time I saw them at a holiday party, and that would darken the whole mood considerably. So both parties are to blame. If the parties would just work together then all our problems would be solved, because the highest and greatest truth of all political situations is that the "right" answer to a problem, no matter what the circumstances, can be found somewhere in the middle of what both parties want. (I shall also insert the word bipartisan in here, because it is quite possibly the best word in the English language, when it comes to phoning something in.)
If one party wants to chop up kittens to feed them to the elderly, and the other wants seniors to get gift certificates to Applebee's, then the obvious answer is to give them gift certificates for purchasing dead kittens. If one party wants to nuke the entire planet just for sport, and the other party, say, wants to nuke nothing, then only a snob or a flaming liberal would object to nuking half the planet as reasonable compromise.
This, then, is the fundamental truth of phoning something in: When in doubt, presume both sides are wrong and that the answer is, regardless of actual facts, statistics, logic, morality, history, or ideology, smack dab in the middle of what all the other people are saying. The magic of this stance is that it literally requires absolutely no research whatsoever: It also shields the writer from being seen as taking sides, or even of having an actual opinion.
I can be confident of my lazy-assed pronouncement that both sides of any discussion are equally wrong, or muleheaded, or corrupt for one simple reason: by phoning that in, too. Throughout all of America, I know that the vast American populace tends to agree with me, and my thoughts. I have no particular evidence of this, but anecdotally, I can confirm it to be true. I tend to drive the same roads as they do, and shop at approximately the same stores, more or less, and so I feel I am "in touch" with what they are feeling. Not just in touch, in fact: I feel that America looks to me as the touchstone for their entire psyche. When searching to find their own thoughts on something, they look to me to express them; when searching for their thoughts on something, I also look to me, making the feeling unanimous.
Every cab driver, every imagined factory worker, every potential patron of an Applebee's salad bar: I feel confident in speaking for them, and even more confident that whatever I am feeling at any one given moment in time (at this exact moment, slightly too warm) is what they, too, are feeling. Frankly, it is refreshing.
Still, though, I do not feel I am doing proper justice to this whole phoning it in notion. I have the requisite laziness, true, but somehow phoning it in always has to have a grandiose element to it; a sharp point of personal narcissism for the rest of the column to rally behind. I have already dully stated that both parties are always equally in the wrong because looking up the facts of the matter would be too damn much work. I have made the keen observation that everyone out there almost certainly agrees with me in this assessment, because none of them particularly want to look this stuff up either.
But where is the punch, the rallying cry? There is no suggestion of action, and even a phoned-in column needs a good action hook, something to tie it all together. This troubled me for some time—so much that I was even considering taking another cab ride, just to be able to speak to a driver about it. What I needed was a grand finish. As proposed political solution to all of the problems I could not be bothered to research, I needed the laziest possible thing.
Then, it hit me. The Holy Grail of phoned-in punditry: the moderate third party. The ultimate in looking bold while still proposing absolutely nothing, an imagined entity that has no other purpose than to solidify the logic and moderateness of all my phoned-in positions.
And so, I am hereby declaring that I really wish we had a moderate third party in America today. A group of Republicans and Democrats throwing off their normal party politics and past stances, something so bipartisanish that it is in fact tri-partisanish, which is at least 50 percent better.
This imaginary third party would serve primarily to justify my own phoned-in stances. It would be a party devoted to the notion that the best approach in any situation is to split the difference between what the other parties want. It would pooh-pooh the hostile Republican demands to adhere to conservative orthodoxy, and denounce the imaginary leftism of the terribly liberal Democrats, and do things which almost always sound suspiciously conservative except that they have a new party name, which makes it not conservative anymore.
Most to the point, though, it will be an entire imaginary party created in my own image. Its imaginary positions just happen to be exactly the same as my phoned-in ones, and its calls for equal blame of both "conventional" parties, ingrained right into the message. We can be confident that America wants this party, since I speak for America, so we can expect it to get easily 90 percent of the vote in any election (there are always a few hangers-on, on the right and left, silly, ideologically rigid people who will rebuff the thing).
Now that is phoning it in. It is one thing to lazily declare that conventional wisdom dictates both parties are equally to blame for some-random-thing, or to claim that the obvious logical solution to a question like "do or do not stick a fork into an electrical outlet?" is to express a few token reservations before jamming it in, but to invent an entire fictitious movement dedicated towards promoting your phoned-in pronouncements? That is the laziest thing ever. And the magic of it is that it works in nearly every situation. Bad at math? Demand a new party that does math "differently" and be done with it. Did someone ask a pesky question about climate change? Suggest a new party that would more earnestly examine the issue and more earnestly not actually do anything about it: problem solved.
Now I know why the imaginary moderate third party is such a staple of phoned-in political punditry. It is quite possibly the easiest, and the most subtly narcissistic, thing to write about. Its aggressive dumbness counts as a form of genius, and nobody can truly get mad at you if you are imagining a party that does not exist. There is never an issue of needing to protect access to an imaginary third party, and never anyone to call you on the phone, cranky that you criticized them in some small, piffling way.
Yes, all hail the imaginary moderate third party. Without it, where would lazy political pundits be?