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Keith B. Richburg: Why the US midterm elections won't do Asia any favors

U.S. voters will go to the polls for midterm elections Nov. 4, and no matter what the final tally turns out to be, the result will be more of the same paralysis and political dysfunction we have seen over the last six years.

     The bad news is that the situation is likely to worsen, the closer we come to the next presidential election in November 2016. This sorry state of affairs is particularly troubling for Asia, for several reasons. But first, it is important to understand the rationale for this gloomy prognosis.

     In the midterms, President Barack Obama's Democratic Party looks set to lose crucial seats in the Senate, which has been under Democratic control since 2007 and has given the White House a bulwark against the right-wing extremism of the Republican-led, Tea Party-controlled House of Representatives.

     Republican gains in the Senate on Nov. 4 are a given. The only question is whether they will find the additional six seats needed to form a new GOP majority. The answer may not even be known on election night, as several close contests may be decided by recounts or runoffs.

     The truth is, it doesn't really matter.

     Whether the Democrats manage to defy predictions and hold onto their Senate majority, or whether the Republicans seize control of the upper chamber, whoever comes out ahead will command the thinnest of majorities. Regardless of the outcome, the last six years have shown that, under the Senate's arcane rules, a determined minority can gum up the works, stall legislation indefinitely and make sure nothing substantial gets done.

     The Republicans already have plans to use their expected majority to pass all kinds of bills, pushing their pet projects and challenging Obama to veto them. But Democrats, in the minority, are likely to prove just as adept as the Republicans at obstructing the normal functioning of the legislature and making sure few noxious bills ever reach the president's desk.

     As soon as the November dust settles, and before the first snows of winter start to fall, candidates for the 2016 presidential election will start announcing their intentions, forming exploratory committees, raising millions of dollars and launching what is known in political circles as "the invisible primary." This is the period when serious candidates begin soliciting funds, organizing their campaign teams and road-testing their ideas and stump speeches. This crucial runup period now typically begins two years or more before election day.

     Now consider this. Among the six or so top-tier Republican candidates vying to succeed Obama, three are sitting senators: Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Imagine any of them wanting to work with Obama to get anything accomplished over the two years leading up to the 2016 election. The more likely scenario is a Republican-run Senate trying to pass legislation that is certain to be either filibustered by the Democratic minority, or vetoed by Obama -- all to lay out the contrasts and positions for the 2016 presidential race.

     That is not exactly a recipe for effective governance.

     What does all of this have to do with Asia? Plenty -- and nothing particularly good.

Landing as a lame duck

For a start, when Obama travels to Asia in November, he will be a severely weakened leader. It is a fluke of the calendar that key regional meetings -- the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the East Asia Summit and this year's G-20 meeting in Australia -- are all scheduled right after election day in the U.S. Incumbent American presidents often arrive at such post-election gatherings chastened by the voters at home, like Bill Clinton in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2006.

     This time, Obama will be arriving in Asia as a certified lame duck, with rock-bottom approval ratings at home, a depleted political base in his once-reliable Democratic Senate, and much of Washington's political class focused on which Republican might be running against Hillary Clinton in 2016. And he will make his first stop in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power faster and more effectively than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.

     Xi will be coming to the APEC meeting bearing gifts -- including advanced plans for a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with $50 billion in mostly Chinese founding capital, to rival the U.S.-dominated World Bank and Asian Development Bank. China, aiming to increase its regional clout, will be looking for more Asian countries to join the ambitious project.

     The Obama administration has been lobbying its Asian allies to spurn the new bank, out of concern it will undermine the global lending institutions that have existed since Bretton Woods in the mid-20th century. A politically damaged Obama will be playing with a weakened hand.

     One reason China wants to set up its own bank is that Beijing feels shut out of the leadership of those existing international bodies. Plans to reform the International Monetary Fund, to increase its lending authority and give China more influence, have been stalled since 2010 by congressional Republicans. U.S. presidential politics makes any IMF reform vote even less likely. 

     Also, while China modernizes its military and becomes increasingly assertive in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, the U.S. military continues to suffer from congressionally mandated budget cuts known as "sequestration." With funding at bare bones, the U.S. Navy is considering putting on ice 11 of its 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers. The future of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier is also uncertain -- all at a time when the Obama administration was hoping to "pivot," or rebalance, toward the Asia-Pacific region.

     The draconian sequestration cuts stem from a budget impasse between Obama, the Democratic Senate and the Tea Party-led House. If the Republicans take the Senate, giving them complete control of the budget process, any hopes of a budget deal with the White House would inevitably diminish.

     There is more. Obama said earlier this year that he hoped to have a framework agreement on the Trans Pacific Partnership -- the vast, 12-nation trading bloc -- by the time of the East Asia Summit in Myanmar on Nov. 13-14. The TPP is the economic cornerstone of Obama's Asian pivot. But a TPP deal has always been contingent upon congressional agreement to grant Obama "fast track" authority on trade pacts, so allies can be certain Congress will not tinker once decisions have been made.

     There is a school of thought that a Republican-led Congress would be more business-friendly than Obama's labor-allied Democrats, and the GOP might be more willing to grant the president the trade authority he needs. But that optimistic view ignores the 2016 electoral calendar, and Republican hardliners' unwillingness to be seen giving this president anything that smacks of a victory.

Diplomatic vacuum

As evidence of that obstructionist mindset, look no further than the number of empty posts at U.S. embassies around the world. At least 33 countries are currently without an American ambassador because Republican senators are holding up the normal process of approving nominations. Among those vacant posts are Vietnam, which has lacked an ambassador since August, at a crucial time when the U.S. is stepping up military aid to Hanoi in response to China's increasing assertiveness. Thailand will soon be another, as Ambassador Kristie Kenney has announced she is returning to Washington without a replacement in position.

     Can anything solve the dysfunction in Washington? Not in the short term. Solutions will require ending the practice of gerrymandering congressional districts, and then eliminating partisan House and Senate primaries that allow the most extreme voters to vet nominees. Voting needs to be made simpler, to broaden the electorate. And the system, which now requires politicians to focus on fundraising, needs to be drained of money. But those things will take time, and a mobilized American public.

     For now, all that America's friends in Asia can do is wait. Wait for 2016. And hope that a new president gets elected with a fresh mandate and a solid majority in both houses of Congress. She will only have about two years to get anything done, before the electoral circus starts all over again.

Keith B. Richburg was the Washington Post's bureau chief in Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong, Paris and Beijing, and was the paper's foreign editor from 2005 to 2007. He is currently writing a book about China.

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