The least dispiriting moment of another grim week in Washington was the sight of ornery veterans tearing down the Barrycades around the war memorials on the National Mall, dragging them up the street, and dumping them outside the White House. This was, as Kevin Williamson wrote at National Review, “as excellent a gesture of the American spirit as our increasingly docile nation has seen in years.” Indeed. The wounded vet with two artificial legs balancing the Barrycade on his Segway was especially impressive. It would have been even better had these disgruntled citizens neatly lined up the Barrycades across the front of the White House and round the sides, symbolically Barrycading him in as punishment for Barrycading them out. But, in a town where an unarmed woman can be left a bullet-riddled corpse merely for driving too near His Benign Majesty’s palace and nobody seems to care, one appreciates a certain caution.
By Wednesday, however, it was business as usual. Which is to say the usual last-minute deal just ahead of the usual make-or-break deadline to resume spending as usual. There was nothing surprising about this. Everyone knew the Republicans were going to fold. Folding is what Republicans do. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are so good at folding Obama should hire them as White House valets. So the only real question was when to fold. They could at least have left it for a day or two after the midnight chimes of October 17 had come and gone. It would have been useful to demonstrate that just as the sequester did not cause the sky to fall and the shutdown had zero impact on the life of the country so this latest phoney-baloney do-or-die date would not have led to the end of the world as we know it. If you’re going to place another trillion dollars of debt (or more than the entire national debts of Canada and Australia combined) on the backs of the American people in one grubby late-night deal, you might as well get a teachable moment out of it.
The GOP was concerned about polls showing their approval ratings somewhere between Bashar Assad and the ebola virus, but it’s hard to see why capitulation should command popularity: The late Osama bin Laden’s famous observation about the strong horse and the weak horse has some relevance to domestic politics, too. Republicans spent a lot of time whining that, if Obama was prepared to negotiate with the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Russians, why wouldn’t he negotiate with the GOP? Well, the obvious answer is Rouhani, Assad, and Putin don’t curl up in a fetal position at the first tut-tut from Bob Schieffer or Diane Sawyer.
The thesis of my recent book After America is stated on page six thereof — “that the prevailing political realities of the United States do not allow for any meaningful course correction.” That’s what the political class confirmed yet again this week. Which brings me to the sentence immediately following: “And, without meaningful course correction, America is doomed.”
Washington’s governing systems are in a bad way. Government by “continuing resolution,” a term foreign to most foreigners, ought to be embarrassing to any self-governing, not to say self-respecting, people. Instead, in the course of the “shutdown,” this repugnant phrase advanced to acronymic status — “CR,” as cable news had it, the pundit class lovingly caressing this latest insider jargon with their customary onanistic shiver. Presented as a resolution of the Obamacare/debt-ceiling standoff, the “CR” came, as the car dealers say, fully loaded — including a $174,000 payment to the widow of New Jersey’s multimillionaire senator Frank Lautenberg. Because, even when you’re saddling the next generation of Americans with another trillion bucks of debt, six-figure payouts to the relicts of the most exclusive rich man’s club in America is just the way it is.
How can you “control” spending under such a system? Congress has degenerated into a Potemkin parliament, its ersatz nature embodied by those magnificent speeches senators give to themselves, orating for the benefit of TV sound bites into the cavernous silence of an empty room, an upper chamber turned isolation chamber. The “law of the land” means machinations and procedural legerdemain culminating in a show vote on unread omnibus fill-in-the-blanks pseudo-legislation to be decided after the fact by the regulatory bureaucracy.
This structural degeneration is a big part of the problem. My friends on the American right fret that if we’re not careful we’ll end up like Europe. But we’re already worse than many parts of Europe, and certainly than the non-European West — by any measure you care to use. According to the IMF, the Danish government’s net debt is 10.3 percent of GDP, Australia’s is 12.7 percent, New Zealand’s 28.8 percent, the Netherlands’ 35.5 percent, Canada’s 35.9 percent, Germany’s 56.2 percent, France’s 86.5 percent — and the United States’ 89 percent. If you take America’s total indebtedness, it averages out to three-quarters of a million dollars per family: We are on course to becoming the first nation of negative-millionaires. But let’s just stick with the federal debt, the figure for which those bipartisan schmoozers are officially responsible: In Australia, each citizen’s share of the debt is $12,000; in New Zealand, it’s $15,000 per person; in Canada and Spain, $18,000; in the United Kingdom, $28,000; in Germany and France, $38,000; Italy, $44,000. And in the United States it’s $54,000 per person — twice as much as Britain, thrice as much as Canada, closing in on five times as much as Oz. On this trajectory, America is exiting the First World.
And that’s before counting the “unfunded liabilities” that Washington keeps off the books but which add another million bucks per taxpayer. Nor does it include Obamacare, with which the geniuses of the “technocracy” have managed to spend a fortune creating the Internet version of a Brezhnev-era Soviet supermarket.
I think of recent “left-wing” governments among our allies. Up north, Jean Chrétien was a thuggish wardheeler presiding over a regime of repellent industrial-scale cronyism; Down Under, Kevin Rudd was a uniquely loathsome specimen of a human being, who communicated through a blizzard of effing asterisks and in idle moments ate his ear wax live on camera. Yet Australia was the only Western nation not to go into recession in 2008, and Canada spent the “fat” years of the Nineties paying down the national debt. Imagine that! As my old comrade Kate O’Beirne put it, “If only we could get American conservatives to be as fiscally responsible as Canadian liberals.” When I met Kevin Rudd a few years ago, he said to me, “I’m part of the pro-American Left.” “Crikey,” I replied, “America doesn’t have a pro-American Left, and in Europe they don’t even have a pro-American Right.” I didn’t know the half of it: These days, it’s not clear to me that the Republican party functions as a pro-American Right. That’s to say, Chrétien and Rudd, ghastly as they were, not only did less damage to their national finances than Obama, Reid, and Pelosi but they also did less damage than the GOP. I’m sure they dreamed the usual crazy dreams of wild-eyed lefties, but the system imposed disciplines on them that Washington doesn’t — on left or right.
That’s the problem. Either you think those numbers above are serious or you don’t. And, if you do think they’re serious and you’re a “lawmaker” (as the New York Times quaintly insists on calling our rubber-stampers), when are you going to get serious? Next month? Next year? Or shall we all sportingly agree to leave it till 2015 after the bipartisan deal on a $20 trillion debt ceiling?