Debt, dogma, and dents in US image
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
No matter how the wrangling over America’s national debt is resolved, it will leave lasting dents in the international image of a country that prides itself on its can-do spirit and its competence. “The entire whole world is watching,” as President Barack Obama put it, and parts of it are dismayed by a monumental display of dysfunction.
Not to speak of an equally impressive display of rigid dogmatic thinking by anti-tax zealots more befitting Afghanistan’s Taliban than legislators of the Republican Party, a mainstay of America’s democracy for more than 150 years. An outspoken British cabinet minister, Vince Cable, described Tea Party-backed Republicans as “right-wing nutters” posing a threat to the world financial system.
Elsewhere in Europe, less sharp-tongued commentators saw the deadlock in Washington over raising the debt ceiling and avoiding default as a sign of America’s decline.
“The United States must fundamentally renew itself,” columnist Ansgar Graw wrote in the conservative German newspaper Die Welt. “This means that both parties must place the common good above gains in electoral campaigns.”
Failing to do so, he said, could result in turning “the American 21st-century crisis into the demise of the dominant power of the 20th century.”
One of the most striking depictions of the gap between long-held perceptions of the United States as a model of democratic competence and the new reality of politicians risking financial havoc for the sake of the purity of anti-tax dogma came not from abroad but in a political cartoon in the New Jersey Record newspaper. Cartoonist Jimmy Margulies portrayed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai standing together looking at a paper marked “U.S. default.”
The bubble coming out of Maliki’s mouth says: “Maybe they are not ready for self-government just yet …”
Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, after invading the countries and waging war, the United States has engaged in costly nation-building efforts designed to lead to the adoption of America’s system of democratic government. Belief in its superiority has been a constant in U.S. foreign policy, illustrated by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright with her famous observation that “we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
The last few months of a Washington spectacle that resembled the game of chicken more than a joint problem-solving exercise by mature politicians have left parts of the world to wonder how correct Winston Churchill was when he said, in a 1947 speech, that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time.”
The leaders of China, the world’s most populous country, never subscribed to that idea but less so now than ever. The Chinese prize stability and predictability above all else and over the years became America’s largest creditor, amassing more than $1.5 trillion in U.S. Treasuries, long considered the world’s safest asset.
There’s nothing safe and predictable in the Washington wrangling over the national debt.
Which is why U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to considerable lengths during a tour of Asia, including China, this month, to reassure worried Chinese officials that the debt debate was a perfectly normal part of the democratic process in the United States. “These kinds of debates have been a constant in our life throughout the history of our republic — and sometimes they are messy,” she said.
True enough. The American political system is messy and disputatious. But to describe what has been happening in the past few months as business as usual is a stretch. Both in the United States and abroad there is a growing perception that political leadership has sunk to its lowest point in decades.
Four out of 10 Americans responding to a Gallup poll this month said they were seeing the worst leadership in Washington in their lifetimes.
Some seasoned Washington watchers agree. On a panel discussion on National Public Radio this week, the interviewer asked Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Alice Rivlin of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution how they viewed the present quality of leadership. The two are prominent members of the capital’s political establishment.
Said Ornstein: “Inmy lifetime, I have not seen a level of dysfunction in congressional leadership that comes close to what we are seeing now. Leaders in the past always knew they had to deal with your wings (on the far side of the spectrum) and you had to deal with your idiots, but you would come together.” Ornstein is 63.
Said Rivlin, whose government posts included vice chairman of the Federal Reserve: “I’m older than Norm and I would say it’s the worst in my lifetime, the most dysfunctional Congress.” Rivlin is 80.
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