Throughout my career, I’ve represented the United States abroad in countries from China to Europe. We’ve made mistakes and had to explain them, we’ve had crises and scandals galore. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia for example, was terribly hard to explain. Our own domestic problems –think of the savings and loan crisis, the Lewinsky affair or Nixon’s impeachment– were also matters of great interest around the world. In bus stations, in cafes, or in meetings, leaders and ordinary citizens would ask: what’s going on? Their interest was not just curiosity; often, the outcome of a problem in the United States would affect their economy or impact their desire to rely on us for security and leadership.
When these questions came up, I’d usually reply that we have fractious politics, but in the end we face up to our problems and fix them. Tax reform fights in the 80s, budget fights in the 90s; dot.com bubble in the 2000s. We addressed the problems and moved forward, usually more resolutely than other countries might. Muddling through was not the American way.
That’s why it’s distressing to see the current food fight in Washington. Not only are we not facing up to our problems: we’re not even arguing about the real issues. We should face the budget issues, the costs of aging and of healthcare, the long term fiscal viability of our government, the mediocre education we provide most students, particularly poor ones, or the fading promise of a better life from one generation to the next. Instead we’re arguing about a health care law that’s already been passed and threatening to explode a default stink bomb right in the middle of our weak economic recovery.
Those of us who have been in Washington a long time know how these issues get solved: leaders cut a deal and then dole out favors to their party members to get the votes. Sometimes it means giving everyone a chance to vote against something –healthcare for example–before passing necessary legislation. Sometimes it requires letting some party members in vulnerable seats vote against while strong arming others to ensure enough votes in favor. Unfortunately, it appears now that the system has broken down, particularly among the Republicans where the leadership can’t strong arm anyone into anything. Deal making and enforcing seem to be broken.
So, chances are we’ll get some kind of temporary fix to our self-created problems without really addressing the big issues. Looks like muddling through has become the default option for the United States.