DAVID IGNATIUS: Perceived U.S. decline rooted in political dysfunction

By DAVID IGNATIUS

WASHINGTON – When traveling abroad, I increasingly hear foreigners speculating that the United States is a country in decline, with a weakened political and economic system.
Consider the recent evidence of foreign disrespect for America: China downgraded its credit rating for American debt last week; South Korea refused U.S. pressure for a new trade deal; European and Asian nations joined in protesting the Federal Reserve’s plans to print more money to stimulate growth.
What the world sees, I’m afraid, is a weak U.S. president who isn’t solving domestic economic problems, let alone global ones. But that’s more a symptom than a cause. What’s happening at a deeper level is a breakdown of the U.S. political system’s ability to find consensus and make decisions. Washington doesn’t work, as critics from the Tea Party right to the progressive left keep insisting.
The message of the last two elections is consistent, if you take a step back from the seeming left-right oscillation: Voters are angry about a Washington process that they believe favors elites and ignores Main Street; they’ve lost trust in government and they want change. The two parties try to bend this message to their own purposes, which only makes the partisan deadlock worse.
It’s a kind of political doomsday machine: The more voters say they want to break with Washington’s culture of insiders, the more powerful privately funded special interests become – with a corresponding freeze on Congress’ ability to legislate. Take any of the issues that people say they care about – immigration, the deficit, tax reform, cutting military and other spending – and you will find evidence of this immobility.
The Fed’s controversial move to stimulate the economy by buying up Treasury bonds through amp”quantitative easingamp” (a highfalutin way to describe printing money) is itself a product of this political gridlock. I’d bet that Chairman Ben Bernanke would prefer a fiscal stimulus targeting money at areas that would provide a quick return, such as spending for infrastructure. But when your political system is broken, those fiscal remedies are off the table – so the Fed has to go it alone with a risky monetary strategy.
The Fed’s unilateralism upsets other countries, understandably. They had hoped that after the Bush years, the United States would return to normal order – working through its traditional alliances and global institutions to nurse the global economy back to health. Our trading partners shouldn’t be surprised that Bernanke decided to put the interests of American workers ahead of those in China or Germany. But there’s a cost in appearing so clearly to put our own welfare first. Other countries will do the same.
Let’s return to the core problem, which is Washington. An interesting commentary is a new book called “Mad as Hell” by Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen that explores the roots of the populist anger expressed in the tea party movement. They argue the revolt is deeper and includes the left as much as the right.
Here are some worrying numbers from “Mad as Hell”: According to Rasmussen’s polling, 86 percent of the elite believes the country is “heading in the right direction,” compared to 19 percent of the mainstream; a plurality of the elite thinks the economy is improving, while 66 percent of the mainstream think it’s getting worse; 74 percent of the mainstream say the political system is broken, while 77 percent of the elite say it’s not.
The question for 2011 is whether this populist anger can achieve its apparent goal – of making real change in how Washington operates. This means beginning to solve hard problems such as budget deficits that rightly worry tea party activists. The leaders of a new bipartisan commission last week outlined a path to fiscal health – just the thing those mad-as-hell voters ought to rally behind.
If Republicans and Democrats could unite to make the tough decisions needed to carry out at least some of the bipartisan commission’s reforms, then this really could be a moment for change. That’s what voters want, not more Washington tantrums and trauma. But making change requires strong leadership and a healthy political process – two things America badly needs right now.
David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at davidignatius@washpost.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.