After the triumph begins the battle against debt
An op-ed I wrote, published in today’s Daily Telegraph:
After his victory at the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington said the only thing sadder than a battle lost is a battle won. You banish your opponent but the triumph dissipates fast as the responsibilities that come with victory crowd in.
That’s happening in Washington. Our friends now face the challenge – the biggest challenge to American leadership – of dealing with the country’s fiscal deficit and its debt.
As someone very fond of America, I am optimistic.
The country is one budget deal away from banishing talk of American decline.
I have pointed this out to American political leaders and haven’t met one who disagrees.
Its manufacturing is recovering its competitiveness based on its technological edge. Its universities are the best in the world. Its entrepreneurial system breeds creativity. It draws in the best and the brightest from around the world – it is almost as much an immigrant nation as Australia. Twenty five per cent of our people were born overseas, 13 per cent of theirs.
But the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, warned in 2011 that the biggest threat to America’s security is its debt. Debt could restrain its capacity to modernise armed forces. And the sort of fiscal crisis some Americans worry about could conceivably force a retreat from the world role which has underpinned world security in line with the interests of allies such as Australia.
It was heartening that the Speaker of the House John Boehner said yesterday that America has an alternative to “going over the fiscal cliff”.
He spoke about curbing entitlement programs and reforming the tax code to reduce loopholes and deductions. This Republican leader also spoke about accepting some additional revenues “via tax reform”.
There are different models for budget reform. The Simpson-Bowles report of December 2010 recommended spending cuts, tax reform and health and social security cost containment.
A separate “super committee” of the Congress struggled with plans to reduce debt. Congress will now need to consider budget proposals before January 2013.
Any friends of America would want to see Democrats and Republicans – both sides of the Congress – come together and wrestle some consensus.
If they do, President Obama will be proved right when he says American’s best days are ahead of them. It will be underpinned by the vitality of American democracy. The quadrennial American election is more than a spectator sport that gets observers excited as much as two years before polling day.
This bumping, bruising exercise in self-government is in fact a tribute to the American people.
That unique American invention – the party primaries – allows the electorate to pick up potential candidates, examine them, shake them and then set them back on the shelf – or angrily toss them over their shoulder.
We saw this as the Republican party scrutinised the talent available to it, before settling on Mitt Romney.
It’s a reasonable assumption that the candidate who survives the gruelling exercise will be qualified to make decisions in the White House. Certainly, he will end up knowing his country inside out.
The system has its faults. The electoral college – designed in the 1790s – can be said to have a distorting effect. The election itself is administered by elected and partisan officials in each state, not by an independent body comparable to the Australian Electoral Commission.
But the US system has an extraordinary overarching virtue: it’s a system that trusts the people.
In the fourth presidential campaign in 1800, voters for the first time threw out an incumbent.
The country’s second president John Adams packed his bags, walked out of the White House and got a coach home to his farm in Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson walked in.
It was a quiet miracle of self-government – not quite democracy at that time, because women, blacks and the poor did not have the vote.
From that day, America has trusted its people, even in depression and war. The wondrous quadrennial exercise we have just witnessed deserves a full-throated three cheers.