Theorists of American decline are preoccupied with the surging growth of emerging rivals, especially China. That's an important issue, I don't doubt. But there's a much bigger threat to U.S. power: the increasingly abject failure of the country's own political class.
Washington sees it as obvious and unremarkable that public policy has been in hibernation for the past few months and isn't expected to wake up until January 2013. Of course the country needs tax reform. Yes, a budget would be good, maybe some longer-term spending plans that anybody could take seriously, too. But this is an election year. What do you expect?
One thing a foreigner like myself might naively expect is serious discussion of relevant policy options. That isn't happening either. The contest for the Republican presidential nomination is barely even pretending to be serious. In this election, the country has to make a "foundational" choice, says Rick Santorum. Does the United States want to follow the European welfare-state model, asks Mitt Romney, or stay true to its principles? Gosh, so much is at stake.
This bogus fundamentalism is an excuse to avoid discussing real decisions that will have to be made. The economic plans of the main Republican rivals are entirely unserious — too vague to appraise and impossible to implement if they meant what their proponents claim them to mean. Public borrowing is out of control, say the Republicans. Therefore, slash taxes, maintain middle-class entitlements and invest more in national security. You can call that a foundational fiscal choice or a self-indulgent fantasy. It comes to much the same thing.
At the moment, the Democrats are letting their Republican rivals tear themselves apart. From the liberal point of view, what could be better? The best Republican candidates have taken themselves out of the running. The party has fielded a roster of second-rate candidates and in a frenzy of mutually assured destruction is thinning this list down to the one it dislikes least. Thus, a country limping away from a shattering recession is treated to debates about the ethics of contraception — contraception, if you can believe that — and a competition to see which candidate is the most "severely conservative."
The Democrats' recovery in the polls is therefore, to my mind, quite a mystery. Why has it been so modest? The Republicans are following a script that no Democratic strategist could improve on, and President Barack Obama's support is still only around 50 percent. Still, the Democrats are gaining ground, and an election that Republicans should have expected to win is sliding away from them. So far Democrats have had the sense to see that this will do fine for now.
It tells you something, though, that the smart strategy is to remain silent while your political rivals self-destruct — not, I would submit, the sign of a healthy polity. When Democrats do get around to debating the anointed Republican loser, I dare say they will be unable to resist talking about foundational choices, too. Remember the party's delight when Obama gave his speech last year in Kansas — an address that reminded the country what the Democrats really stand for, how much this coming election really matters and what a pivotal decision the electorate is about to make.
What I want to know is how long the people who believe that have lived in the United States. How often does an American election settle anything?
The Constitution's checks and balances are expressly designed to prevent foundational lurches — and its record of doing just that is pretty impressive. The Republicans look as though they intend to throw away the presidential election, but Democratic control of both chambers of Congress next year seems unlikely. This supposedly pivotal election may very well change nothing. (You remember how transformative 2008, which actually did give Democrats unified control, proved to be.)
I admire the Constitution for the way it protects the United States from the reckless machinations of the country's political class — but one has to admit the downside. By guarding against the dire results of rule by either tribe of would-be fundamentalists, this system accommodates and thereby encourages that very fundamentalism. Washington is a zone of advocacy without consequences. In the end, the posturing is for nothing: That's why it persists. Meanwhile, policy emerges unpredictably and almost inadvertently, through a process of dealmaking that has nothing to do with what politicians tell voters in their speeches, hence with no real accountability or consent.
Two other things follow. One is protracted delay as the political pantomime plays out. The other is that it's impossible to make a credible commitment to long-term answers. If the next transformative election is never more than two years away, nothing is expected to stick.
America's fiscal challenges, for instance, are serious yet surmountable. Just read the report of the fiscal commission led by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Critical elements of what needs to be done are by now obvious: base-broadening tax reform and control of entitlements through a higher retirement age. But the U.S. political class would rather keep prating about foundational choices than get on with those straightforward fixes. While Washington quarrels endlessly over transformations that will never happen, the fiscal problem worsens to the point where it may turn around and kick the economy in the teeth.
I'd say China is the least of this country's problems.
© 2012 Bloomberg News