I spent much of last night talking on various overseas news systems about what the Republican victories were likely to mean for US relations with China, or Japan, or Europe, or Australia, or other countries with "how does this affect me?" questions. And of course the answer is: Not very much. Foreign policy was barely an issue in the campaigns; even when facing a divided or opposition Congress, a President still has a lot of foreign-policy latitude; a climate bill (a prominent question in every discussion) didn't get passed in Obama's first two years and certainly won't in these next two; and the one "foreign" issue that did get into the campaigns, general fear of China as a proxy for concern about American economic stagnation, doesn't necessarily translate into any specific change in actual policy. And so on.
There is a deeper question that some foreign interviewers kind of danced around, but which boiled down to this: We outsiders understand that at two-year period of standoff and stalemate makes sense within the logic of American politics, and that the 2012 presidential campaign starts today. But (they went on), can you really afford this? Are you so confident that the big issues for America's economic, technological, educational, and strategic future are so minor and so postponeable that a two-year hiatus doesn't matter?
I'd answer with a little talk about this recurring pattern in American politics -- Reagan's midterm setbacks in 1982, Clinton's in 1994, etc -- and the even more strongly recurrent pattern of American resilience. But what I really thought was: that's my concern, exactly. I wish I could disagree with the prospect John Judis lays out this morning in the New Republic. But at the moment I can't:
>>Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America's challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that can produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. As the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand, these kinds of industries require government coordination and subsidies. But the new generation of Republicans rejects this kind of industrial policy. They even oppose Obama's obviously successful auto bailout.
Instead, when the U.S. finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country in trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars; a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public; boarded up factories; and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia....
[I]f I am right about the fundamental problems that this nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician's or political party's victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like, think about Japan....
Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until their bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable finally to extricate from its slump, it has suffered through a rapid of succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to create disillusionment and despair within the electorate.... That kind of political instability is both cause and effect of Japan's inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century....
[L]ike Japan, we've had a succession of false dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an "unstable equilibrium." That's not good for party loyalists, but it's also not good for the country. America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us out of the impasse we are in, but if this election says anything, it's that we're not going to get it over the next two or maybe even ten years.<<
Update: And I agree with our own Andrew Sullivan, to the same effect:
>>What we seem to be facing in the next two years is a president actually trying to govern a country in a profound crisis, and an opposition focused entirely on harassing or preventing him ... while running for 2012. My view is a relatively simple one: the GOP ran on cutting spending. I think their first move should be to propose a path to balancing the budget in the foreseeable future. I want to see their actual proposals on entitlements and defense. They refused to reveal them before the election. Are we supposed to wait till 2013?<<