As I struggled with a paper this week, I found myself thinking back to a remark repeated by one of my professors – that the US had lost the ability to deal with new challenges. This was a comment on our domestic political situation, but I heard it in the context of American foreign policy, and now we must to turn to a key player in US foreign policy for inspiration.
The problems facing the US are exemplified by the recent continuation of a national obsession: lowering taxes. Republicans and, indeed, deficit hawks of every stripe have been put in a bind. While many of them believe lower taxes will stimulate the economy, Democrats and sane-minded economists alike believe deficit spending is essential to reduce unemployment and keep the economy growing. As the government continues to spend in deficit with a budget beyond immediate balancing, cutting taxes is incredibly unrealistic and damaging. However, this doesn’t limit its domestic appeal. The Tea Party spent a lot of energy building the pipe for this particular dream.
The Republican solution would be to kill key government programs by defunding them with the help of their newfound majority in the House. Obama would naturally rebel, and the last time we had a budget showdown, the president came out on top. However, an Obama victory would still not solve the problem. A New York Times column by Paul Krugman appropriately titled “There Will Be Blood” nicely illustrated the problem. The US needs to be able to make politically unappetizing but economically sensible decisions. In our polarized political environment, this is impossible. Neither party can embrace these positions unilaterally without being tarred and feathered by their opponents.
It is here that we turn to international inspiration – found in the form of America’s unpredictable and prickly ally, Israel. When Israel was facing a dire economic situation in the 1980s, the largest parties on the left and the right were at more or less equal strength in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. They formed a National Unity Government, accepting foreign policy deadlock in exchange for unity on certain domestic issues. In doing so, they moved the aforementioned unpalatable from the realm of politics into the realm of policy.
This is obviously impossible in the US today. It would appear that Americans must suffer for a couple years before learning this lesson. Our politicians have lost the capacity for political ceasefire and the current political parties offer no way out. It is unlikely that Americans will ever elect an independent president. Barring a major shift in political opinion towards genuine cooperation and bipartisanship, America needs a triumvirate in 2012. A president, speaker, and a majority leader who can agree to deadlock on everything other than the economy, and make the tough decisions we need for domestic economic growth. Yes, this would require that Eric Cantor set aside his narcissist political strategy for the moment, and not underline whomever the GOP decides to contribute. Is it likely to happen? Of course not. No one currently in the Democratic leadership would be viable, and neither would anyone likely to be in the Republican leadership. Meanwhile, Republicans are strategically misinterpreting the election as a mandate for partisanship and strife.
What are the hard decisions they would have to make? Listen to Ben Bernanke, and improve short-term economic confidence while reducing structural deficits. Extend unemployment while increasing infrastructure spending. Maintain taxes (and let the Bush cuts expire) while cutting defense spending. Let’s just hope the US doesn’t have to survive its own ‘Lost Decade’ before someone decides to do so.