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After the triumph begins the battle against debt

November 9, 2012

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.

  1. Bill Molyneux permalink
    November 9, 2012 11:27 am

    Could Bob commment on the impact that only 50% of Americans casting a vote at this election may have on the democratic process

  2. Ralf Kluin permalink
    November 9, 2012 12:46 pm

    Hi Bob,

    I think that many Australians have little actual understanding of the political workings of the USA. The requirements for the Presidency, as I read the American Constitution, are set forth in article 2. A president must be a natural-born citizen, at least thirty-five years old, who has lived in the USA for a minimum of 14 years. The responsibilities of Presidents are also set forth in article 2 and the duties of office are surprisingly brief and somewhat vague. As you explain, “in the fourth presidential campaign in 1800, voters for the first time threw out an incumbent and John Adams packed his bags and returned home.” This may be because of the vagueness in the US Constitution as interpreted by the office holder and Congress, sometimes leading to conflict. But one can also see that when the Presidency was created, the colonies had just fought a war of independence; their reaction to British domination had focused on the autocratic rule of King George 3. Thus the delegates to the constitutional convention were extremely wary of unchecked power and were determined not to create an all-powerful, dictatorial Presidency. In any event, it will be interesting to observe how a Democatic President (The Democratic Party is the oldest party in the USA) with a majority in the Senate, negotiates outcomes in the best interests of the American People with the second oldest, the Republican party holding a majority in the House of Representative.

    Best wishes,


  3. Watson permalink
    November 11, 2012 2:27 pm

    Success this December will depend on the capacity of the Republicans to admit that despite their majority in the Congress, they did not prevail in the election of the Administration nor the Senate, and therefore have an obligation to negotiate responsibility with the President the people have again chosen to lead them. Conservative politicians on both sides of the Pacific have adopted a policy of relentless negativity, absurd denigration, and poisonous personal attacks, while expecting that the targets of their vituperative assaults to accept the abuse with grace and continue to treat them with respect. The Prime Minister has outed the misogyny the leader of the Opposition, and Greg Combet has done the same in relation to Abbott’s endless misrepresentation of climate change and the Carbon Tax.
    How many times will Obama accept the Republicans’ abusive rebuffs to his calls for fairness and equity in dealing with a deficit largely brought about by Reagan-Bush tax cuts before he calls on the people to stand with him to fight for America’s future?
    In 1936 FDR said ‘I’m struggling with the old enemies of democracy and peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation and reckless banking, sectionalism and class antagonism, and war profiteers. They treat the economy like their plaything. They hate me, and I welcome their hatred.’
    Nothing changes.

  4. November 12, 2012 9:14 pm

    My three cheers to the women, the migrants and the business owners who made sure their voice was counted!

  5. Ralf Kluin permalink
    November 14, 2012 11:20 am

    In the USA as in Australia, Conservatives still cannot get their heads around the concept: equality of opportunity. Populations of voting people whom support the ideas for social democracies in the world, in my opinion, tend to recognise that the purpose of government is to promote equality; especially economic equality. After all, here in Australia our voter turnout is in the range of 90%+ and each vote is carefully counted equally. Economic equality comes only at the expense of economic freedom, for it requires government action to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. The US Republicans or Australian Conservative Liberal National Party’s can never achieve these outcomes based upon an unfettered free market, utilising the “trickle-down” process. It will never ever work. The main method for redistribution is for US Congress or Australian Parliaments to legislate good tax policies for their governments to manage, putting more emphasis upon progressive taxes. The GST or similar styled taxes, in my opinion, tend to be more regressive and actually slow down the redistribution process, as witnessed in recent Australian media reports. The other instrument for reducing inequalities is government spending through better designed and targeted welfare programs, especially in housing, education, health and public transport. I believe that the goal in either case is not so much in producing equality of outcomes, but rather, to reduce inequalities by giving a hand up, especially for the poor and even more directly, all the people who’ve suffered some personal tragedy during their lifetime. Having lived in the USA and elsewhere and in Australia, I can attest that people who vote for policies which predominantly advance self interest; when they fall upon hard times seeking help from their fellow individualistically minded travellers, they are often at times, left out in the cold.

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