Seen from abroad -- and I’m in China at the moment -- the U.S. government shutdown seems worse than absurd; it’s actually threatening America’s long standing as the beacon of democracy in the world.
I was in a Shanghai tapas bar last week chatting with some friends from Germany, when one of them asked me about the shutdown and how the U.S. government came to such a crisis point. Then he added, “For us Germans, especially, America was always seen as the symbol of democracy.” When Germany was reconstructing itself from the ashes of World War II, American-style democracy was the gold standard, the example of how it was supposed to be done. This German friend was simply perplexed. “How could this happen?” he kept asking. And I had no good answer.
And I had just finished reading the excellent book “Embracing Defeat,” about how Japan in the post-war years reconstructed itself as a democracy after decades of militarism and fascism. And, again, American-style democracy was held up as the model to be emulated. Japan rebuilt itself largely in our image.
Now what do we have, 68 years since the end of the second world war? The U.S. government shut down by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives that refuses to pass an appropriations bill shorn of extraneous amendments that have nothing to do with the federal budget. And a default deadline looming as that same House majority balks at lifting the nation’s debt ceiling, setting financial markets around the world on edge.
The ostensible target of the House Republicans’ destructive antics is “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act, which aims to make health insurance more accessible to millions without it, and to rein in some past abuses of the private insurance industry (like denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, or unilaterally imposing caps on expenses for the sick).
Since most developed countries have some form of universal health care, and some requirement that their citizens are covered, it is in itself an absurdity for many non-Americans that the world’s richest country has so many people uninsured, and has such unaffordable health care. Many Americans, and especially those opposed to Obamacare, like to crow about how the U.S. has “the best health care system in the world.” But as someone who has lived abroad for more than 20 years, and been to hospitals in many countries, I can tell you for a fact; that ain’t so. It’s especially untrue if having great health care is measured by the accessibility citizens have to the services available. And ask any traveller or tourist coming to the U.S., from Australia or Britain or elsewhere -- they are warned about the costs of American health care, advised of the problems that could arise in the event of a medical emergency, and faced with paying huge additional premiums for travel insurance to the United States.
But all that is beside the point, and I am not an expert on health care. I also don’t know if Obamacare will work fine, as its proponents hope, or turn out to be the train wreck its Republican critics insist it will be. Time will tell, once the act is fully implemented. And if it’s a costly flop, I will be among those advocating its quick replacement with something better.
But here’s a question for the Republicans that I’m surprised no one has asked (or at least no one I’ve heard ask on the various TV talk shows I can see in China); if Obamacare really is so destructive that people will eventually clamor for its repeal, why then wouldn’t the Republicans just sit back and allow it to be implemented? Surely, when it proves to be a disaster, which should happen pretty quickly by their estimates -- people losing their coverage, businesses cutting workers’ hours, “death panels!” -- then a disgusted electorate would in 2016 sweep the Democrats out of the White House and the Senate, elect a Republican president and a solid conservative majority in both houses of Congress, and guarantee Republican dominance for the next generation.
To put it another way, why resort to this destructive tactic of shutting down the U.S. government in a vain attempt to block the Democrats from implementing a program you believe is unpopular and unworkable? Why not prove your point and let the train wreck happen?
The most obvious answer would seem to be the opposite; that Obamacare will not prove to be unpopular and unworkable, but it might end up being popular and work just fine. And that would make it harder, not easier, to repeal later on.
But the larger point here is about more than Obamacare and whether or not it will become a disaster. The bigger issue is how does the opposition try to stop that train wreck -- and whether holding up the entire U.S. government budgeting process and threatening default constitutes a legitimate means of opposing a disliked law? I would argue it does not. A law that passed even without Republican votes is still a law, and this one was upheld as constitutional by the most conservative Supreme Court in memory. Obamacare was enacted and passed constitutional muster. To me, the only legitimate means to oppose it now is for Republicans to try to win the White House and Senate in 2016, and then see if they have the votes to repeal it. That is what our democratic system is about. That is the model we sold to others around the world.
And by the way, if you think this inane shutdown is not already damaging America’s standing, consider this; President Obama had to cancel his appearance at the annual summit of Asian leaders, at a time when the administration has been trying to “pivot” to this prosperous and growing region after a decade when we’ve been distracted by wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And without Obama present, guess who’s the new star of the summit? China’s President Xi Jinping, at a time when a rising China is trying to rival the U.S. for influence in Southeast Asia. A fascinating op-ed piece in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper explained how Obama’s no-show amounts to a serious blow to the president’s leadership, a loss of “face,” while Xi will be enjoying serious face time with Asian leaders.
And consider this; China’s Vice-minister of Finance, Zhu Guangyao, on Monday, Oct. 7, called on the U.S. to take “concrete measures” to lift the debt ceiling and avoid a default, and to act responsibly as the holder of the global reserve currency. “This is the United States’ responsibility,” he said. China has every right to be worried, as the holder of $1.2 trillion in American debt.
Imagine, the Chinese leaders lecturing U.S. politicians to grow up, act responsibly and get America’s economic house in order. The Republican House holding the country’s normal budgeting process hostage to outlandish demands to negotiate over a law that’s already been ruled constitutional.
No wonder my German friend was distressed at the state of American democracy, once a beacon in the world. I’m distressed too.