I've spent the last two weeks in Latin America — where they know something about defaulting on public debts. As part of a bipartisan group of former U.S. ambassadors, I met with business leaders, central bankers, government officials and ordinary citizens. They all asked: what is going on in the U.S. Congress? Is the U.S. really going to default on its debt because of the political game playing?
Along with my traveling companions, Republicans as well as Democrats, I repeatedly reassured them that we were confident that cooler heads would prevail and default would be avoided. But privately, we shook our heads and said to each other: Boy, I hope we're right.
Well, we were right — for now. But Congress has just agreed to put our country, the financial markets, and the world through another episode of "Will the tea party destroy the credibility of the greatest country in the world?" Under the plan approved Wednesday night, the show will be back on the air in January, 2014.
And that's the real problem. In a few months, the tea partiers will probably back down again, and the U.S. government will pay its debts as it has since the founding of the republic. But the damage to our country is material, nonetheless. The message to the world is that economically illiterate political extremists are powerful enough in the U.S. today to potentially disrupt the world economy.
In Argentina and Brazil, the two countries we visited, people expect their governments to make big economic mistakes and political extremists to come to power periodically. After all, Argentina renegotiated its debt a decade ago and, less than 20 years ago, Brazil's inflation rate was more than more than 6,800 percent. In the memory of most living adults, both countries were run by military dictatorships.
But they don't expect such extremism in the U.S. And while they don't agree with every aspect of U.S. foreign and economic policy, they do count on the U.S. to be responsible and democratic. What they saw during the last few weeks and during the last U.S. debt default scare in the summer of 2011 was an America that looked like the worst days in their own countries — a zealous ideological minority trying to impose its will and threatening economic havoc.
The tea partiers and their bankrollers such as the Koch brothers may think their antics are nothing more than small-time internal party politics — helping ambitious politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul win low turnout Republican primaries. But they are wrong. The whole world is watching, frightened that the greatest democracy and economy in the history of the world may be taken over by power hungry — and economically crazy — opportunists. We may discount the fears of foreigners as exaggerated. But many have lived the nightmares they fear.
America's security is dependent on its credibility — on the credibility of our political institutions and of our financial commitments. When the credibility of both are put in doubt — as the tea party Republicans just did — so is our security. Our friends — and enemies — around the world understand that. We need to as well.
What is to be done?
There are at least two paths out of this blind ally.
One is for the Democrats to win the 2014 elections overwhelmingly, taking back control of the U.S. House and working with President Barack Obama and responsible Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to keep reducing the federal deficit while investing in our economic future.
The other path, not mutually inconsistent, is for mainstream Republicans to take back control of their party, making it again a credible voice for fiscal responsibility and constructive governance.
As a Democrat, I can picture how to walk the first path. The second — reforming the Republican Party — seems more difficult and certainly is beyond my competence.
But I hope there are Republicans who know how to restore their party to the constructive role it once played. The last few weeks have demonstrated the importance of that effort, not just to their party, but to the future of our country.
Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat, represents District 21 in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties. He served as ambassador to Romania from 1998-2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.