BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Forget the panda cam. The inability of millions of Americans to monitor the progress of Mei Xiang’s adorable offspring at Washington, DC’s National Zoo will not be the worst effect of the US government shutdown that took force Tuesday.
Rather, it’s the damage, real and potential, done to the image of the United States on the world stage.
A country that considers itself “exceptional,” in the words of President Barack Obama, and one that’s “shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all,” has been forced to cease many of its federal public functions.
“America is feeling a bit more like Italy,” British commentator Gary Younge said on Public Radio International’s “The World” Tuesday afternoon.
The main problem, he insisted, is the chasm that stretches between America’s loudly proclaimed self-image and its increasing inability to govern itself.
“The Greeks and the Italians don’t generally suggest that they are the greatest nation in the world, with a model which other people should follow,” Younge said. “The United States claims a level of supremacy, functionality and leadership which is severely … undermined by a perpetual series of self-inflicted crises.”
Bring on the moussaka and Chianti.
The rest of the world cannot quite understand what all the fuss is about. Come to think of it, neither can most Americans. It boils down to one party’s refusal to accept what’s become, for better or worse, reality.
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President Barack Obama won re-election last November, and his health care bill was duly debated, survived a Supreme Court challenge, became the law of the land and went into effect on Tuesday.
None of these facts is palatable to the Tea Party faction in Congress, a group of extreme, conservative Republicans. They have mounted a political offensive that’s keeping the rest of their party in thrall.
The Tea Partiers say they will not OK the budget without significant changes to the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.” What’s worse, they are threatening to push the US into default in two weeks by refusing to raise the debt ceiling.
The administration will not renegotiate a battle it’s already won, saying that doing so “fundamentally changes the nature of our government.”
Remember the tremors that ran through the markets two years ago, when Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating? In August 2011, the most powerful economy on the planet slipped from its top-tier AAA to AA+ because of “political brinksmanship” in Washington, which, according to S&P, “highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.”
Well, the partisan battles of the summer of 2011 may come to look like a love-in compared to what’s happening today.
Even the very real damage done by the shutdown — hundreds of thousands of government workers not getting paid, international visitors turned away from national parks and monuments, food and drug inspections not taking place, loans not being processed, and, of course, the panda cam going dark — pales beside the incredible dangers facing the US and world economy if the current situation carries over to negotiations on the debt ceiling.
If Congress does not allow the government to pay its debts, the “full faith and credit” of the US goes in the toilet, with catastrophic knock-on effects for the world.
“For the US, this is certainly humiliating, demonstrating as it does a divided nation apparently incapable of managing its affairs in an effective manner,” writes Jeremy Warner, assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph. “But in itself it is not necessarily an economic catastrophe … America can afford a shutdown. But a default would be like a death star exploding — Lehman to the power of 1,000.”
The 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, a New York-based global financial services firm, heralded the deep economic recession that swept through the US and much of the rest of the world, and which is only now loosening its grip on financial markets.
”The effect would be so calamitous that nobody can quite believe it will ever be allowed to happen,” Warner continues. “Congress can quarrel all it likes about Obamacare, but it is presumably not about to take the blame for returning the world economy to the Stone Age. It will surely come to its senses.”
Perhaps. But the current display of self-destructive behavior on Capitol Hill has become so egregious that no one should be unduly optimistic.
“John Boehner isn't even trying to pretend his House of Representatives is a sane place anymore,” write Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas of The Washington Post.
“In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, Rep. Paul Ryan’s tax reform plan, the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, rewriting of ash coal regulations, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, an overhaul of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services Block Grant, more means-testing in Medicare, repeal of the Public Health trust fund, and more.”
This, the authors say, “looks like an Onion parody of what the House's debt-ceiling demands might be.”
Andrew Sullivan, of the blog The Dish, quips, “Why not demand president Obama’s resignation while they’re at it?”
Wait, don’t give them any ideas.
Economic catastrophe may be just around the corner, but political fallout is already here. As Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, the damage to US credibility, at home and abroad, is already significant.
“Why does Washington claim that demonstrating resolve in the world requires intermittently using military force, but not funding the federal government on time?” Zenko asks in a blog post. “For those who claimed that attacking Syria with cruise missiles was required to maintain US credibility in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader, doesn’t Capitol Hill’s behavior over the past week do more to demonstrate America’s incompetence? If the foundations of functioning governance are impossible at home, shouldn’t US allies question America’s commitments to their security thousands of miles away?”
Strong words, as Washington attempts to thread the needle on a variety of delicate foreign policy challenges — negotiating with Iran in the face of stiff resistance from Israel;
dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles without seeming to give too much credit to Russia; and trying to manage a withdrawal from Afghanistan that does not negate the sacrifices of the past 12 years.
Matters have reached a point where satire may more adequately reflect the reality than more straight-laced reporting.
“Utter insanity,” was how late-night TV comedian Jon Stewart characterized the current impasse Monday night. He took aim at the Republicans’ oft-repeated whine that Obama is more willing to talk to Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Iran’s Hassan Rouhani than he is to negotiate with Congress.
“If it turns out that President Barack Obama can make a deal with the most intransigent, hard-line, unreasonable, totalitarian mullahs in the world, but not the Republicans, maybe HE is not the problem.”
Below is a YouTube clip of Jon Stewart's Sept. 30 "Daily Show."