There are real crises coming down the line — such as an almost inevitable default in Europe — but the Republicans refuse to deal with reality.
I’ll start by acknowledging that I do not even remotely understand Republican party dynamics and can’t read what happens in a Republican debate the way I think I can read Democratic party events.
Nevertheless, in approximately 45 years of reasonably close involvement in American politics, I have never seen more divergence from reality in what purports to be a serious discussion by men and women who actually think they might wind up being president of the United States. The Republican debate on Monday consisted of eight adults standing up for two hours and discussing an alternate universe.
This really is a “the emperor has no clothes” kind of moment. Unfortunately, what is claimed and asserted in our current politics is always imperfectly related to reality. You can generally assume that any quote — particularly from an opponent’s book — and any statistic (I’ve always thought that I have never, ever heard a complicated statistic used correctly by a major politician) is simply wrong. And therefore you have to “grok” what anyone would actually try to do when faced with the real world. So we become accustomed to the dissonance.
But isn’t there a point when the divergence is just too great not to acknowledge? Michele Bachmann says President Obama “stole” $500 million from Medicare. She says President Obama embedded $105 billion in post-dated checks. Newt Gingrich says he “helped balance the budget for four straight years.” The debate’s moment of high drama and its aftermath involved vaccine inoculations, a moment that was prolonged the next day when Bachmann claimed that these inoculations caused retardation — a problem no one else in the medical profession has ever heard of. The very real possibility of a lost American decade, the reality of 9 percent unemployment, or the potential for a complete European economic collapse never intruded on the fantasy world these people have spun for themselves.
So I think the answer to my question is “no.” CNN cosponsored the debate (which makes it a profit center); serious adults such as David Gergen were commentators. Everyone was obsessed with the tactics. No one pointed out that this is one of the moments that shows we are beginning to go off the rails.
But we really are going off the rails, and it is time to change a basic assumption that I, and I would guess almost everyone, has always had about America and its leadership: that we have grownups in charge who have a reasonably firm grasp of reality and a sense of prudence about the risks they are willing to take. George W. Bush challenged this assumption, but this debate declared it null and void. That strange light in Michele Bachmann’s eyes when she went into raptures over her willingness to risk an American default, or whenever she is about to try to foist a total mistruth on unsuspecting Americans, is a dead giveaway. I would guess that the odds are slightly better than even that one of these eight will be elected in 2012. This is like the shortstop who can’t hit, but on the other hand can’t field. Based on this debate, where there was almost no connection between what was said and the real world, the public doesn’t have a clue what any of them would actually do as president, but on the other hand we can be sure that when they do it, it will scare the bejesus out of us.
How could anyone see this debate and not see with blinding clarity the need for a movement from the radical center?
The harrowing thing is that there are real crises coming down the line that will require real leadership. As I was watching the debate, I was finishing Peter Boone and Simon Johnson’s article “Europe on the Brink” published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. It begins, “Attempts to solve the problems in Europe are failing and the crisis is spreading… The euro crisis is not under control.” Then it gets pessimistic. I finished the article, looked up some credit default swap numbers, talked to some friends, and concluded that there is a 60 percent chance of a Greek default — an unplanned, messy default — within six weeks.
This event will (1) lead directly to the bankruptcy of a number of European banks, and (2) put unsustainable pressure on Italy, Spain, and Portugal — maybe even France. There is no institution or process in Europe that can stop this; the IMF can’t stop it and we damn sure aren’t going to do anything. Nor is there a will to do anything. A European friend who would know said to me, “The French say Greece is the cradle of democracy, give them anything they want. The Germans say the Greeks are lazy liars, let them starve. And there is no voice in between.”
As this process moves on, Italy, Spain, and Portugal will not be able to finance themselves at all from private markets and there are not enough other resources in Europe to step in. There will be more defaults, more bankruptcies, and a hair-raising recession in Europe.
What are we going to do? In a normal country, say America 20 years ago, we would begin to anticipate these events, discuss them quietly in Washington between the leaders of both parties, and have a rough plan. But not now. If you judge by the Republican debate, we will do our damnedest to avoid thinking about any actual crises. Besides, this one involves foreigners, and what do they know anyway?
When asked what factors determined the success of a prime minister, Harold McMillan of Great Britain famously answered, “Events, dear boy, events.” Inconveniences like complete economic and financial meltdowns in Europe constantly intrude on the otherwise well encapsulated lives of ideologues, and you actually do have to have a point of view about them.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents.