If you have watched the American adaptation of House of Cards on Netflix, you know that Washington DC is not driven by ideas of governance or even money. It’s driven by power and control. Governance and money lead to both, but the end goal is the power and control over others.
Even if HoC wasn’t fiction, you need look no further than the current US budget cuts fiasco for proof of the driving forces behind the American capital.
It may look ideological on the surface, and for some it is, but this is about positioning for the next election cycle in 2014 and ultimately 2016.
Nobody in election positions at any level is willing to give up expensive perks, directing of money to their own constituencies via unrelated legislation, or the loopholes that let them get away with everything.America spends more than it brings in. This is a fact and a danger. Any nation spending more than it collects in taxation and revenue cannot sustain it for long. The US needed to spend to prop up the economy in 2008 and 2009 but it can’t last long term.
By contrast, abandoning all your citizens to the mercy of the market is reckless, cruel and sometimes fatal.
Both the need to control spending and the need to protect the vulnerable are being turned into ideological war rooms, though in reality they are merely practical positions needing balanced against each other in a modern democracy.
The Republicans dug the hole for themselves when they refused to make deals with the Democrat Senate and White House, creating a plan with automatic spending cuts that also covered their beloved military cash cow. They believed they were going to win the White House away from President Obama in 2012 and could simply undo the chaos they created as an Obama trap.
Meanwhile, Obama is still in campaign mode. More comfortable and free to say what he really thinks since winning re-election, he argues the Republicans will face the wrath of the public when the automatic cuts damage the economy (nobody really knows what will happen, to be fair).
This is the latest in the political games that have been played for decades and centuries, but it is more pronounced in the demands of 24/7 reactionary TV news and social media.
Any compromise will be seen as capitulation, or rather portrayed as capitulation. So, to maintain power and control, you have to never give in until you come up with a course of action that somehow gives the appearance of your own victory.
In this game, I’d give the slight edge to Obama as he doesn’t have go through an election ever again, and he’s proven to have a sense of the long odds in his manipulations and politicking.
With a view to wanting a legacy, a favourable narrative from future historians, and avoiding the “lame duck” tag that’s applied to the toes of so many dying presidencies, Obama may get this right. If he can get immigration reform, which looks likely, and end the war in Afghanistan, which is planned (though the outcome there is far from certain), he may get some positive reviews. But he’ll need to improve the budget somehow, and that really requires bolder and more specific vision from the president, the senate and the house.
Ideas for green energy, for wi-fi networks or high-speed rail, might overhaul the US economy someday, but aren’t getting the public or political traction they need. If so-called Obamacare from his first term can gradually improve the nation’s health, it will partly limit the rising medical costs. But all those projections are a decade off at best.
Power is immediate, control fleeting; legacy is not as tempting an aphrodisiac in the short term.
In HoC, Francis Underwood is playing the long game and manipulating whichever chess piece necessary for the ultimate prize. But he does so by controlling the entire game board.
Long-term, nobody is willing to make the changes to the tax code, to public spending, to how congress American democracy works, to anything beyond the next election cycle. Spending cuts will be the least of the US’s worries when they really go bankrupt in the name of power.