For anti-Americans and others addicted to Schadenfreude, it could hardly get better. The delicious clip of Republican candidate Rick Perry, unable to remember the name of one of the three departments of the federal government he had pledged to abolish, was a moment to treasure.
But seen in a larger context, the comic relief soon fades. For the American political system seems to be unravelling in the most extraordinary way. A president whom many regard as a failure, and who is a disappointment even to his most fervent admirers, looks likely to squeeze through the 2012 presidential election, now less than a year away, only because of the antics of the extraordinary menagerie of candidates the once Grand Old Party can put into the field against him.
In the meantime, neither the president nor the Congress seems able even to begin to address the United State’s grave problems - public and private debt, high unemployment, economic stagnation and policy paralysis. The fact that the next election is of vital importance to America and the world makes this a chilling reality.
The Republican circus
Rick Perry’s amnesia in a televised debate is far from the only worrying aspect of his personality and campaign. He was the governor of Texas: yet even on questions about Texas's constitution and its economy’s alleged immunity to national problems, he has proved evasive or uninformed.
Herman Cain is an even more implausible candidate, whose only qualification, it seems, is having accumulated a fortune selling pizza: the suspicion has been voiced that he is only running to push up his appearance fees. His own broadcast moment of embarrassment (over the administration’s Libya policy) was as excruciating as Perry’s, and he too has shown comprehensive ignorance of public life at home and abroad. The accusations of several women job applicants that he propositioned them further expose his flaws.
These two are only the most obviously absurd contestants. Mitt Romney, superficially the most acceptable candidate by conventional standards, seems dull, little more than a profile over a well-tailored suit of clothes. His qualifications for entering the race are that his father was a (not very impressive candidate) forty years ago, and that he amassed hundreds of millions of dollars in his private-equity business, Bain Capital. Two biographical details that might commend him to an unbiased observer - his loyalty to his Mormon faith and his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, where he passed a healthcare-reform measure - are seen by many Republicans and much of the media as negatives.
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives and in the mid-1990s an influential and innovative conservative politician, has by default re-emerged as a plausible option among many Republicans, commentators and others. He a man of real political stature, but is vulnerable to media scrutiny of many details of his personal and financial life.
Someone will emerge a winner from amid the scrum of televised debates, costly advertising wars, and local votes. But so far the pre-election circus has had little to say about two fundamental questions:
* Why is the American political system now apparently so dysfunctional?
* What will be the implications, for the United States and the world?
The dysfunctional system
Many answer the first question by identifying specific constitutional problems, such as the high barrier needed for invoking cloture in the Senate. But these are often a symptom rather than an originating cause. Here, two processes seem of especial importance.
The first is the breakdown of party, especially at the level of presidential electoral politics. While party allegiance has considerable importance in Congress and at the state level, presidential campaigns are essentially raids by charismatic leaders who campaign with little or no loyalty to party or party programme (that is, charismatic in the classic sense in which Max Weber defined the term: leaders who attract a horde of followers with the promise of gain, here on earth or in the hereafter).
Since the campaign of John F Kennedy in 1960, few successful presidential candidates have owed much to party ideology and less to party organisation. Their success, when it comes, is owed to personal magnetism, promoted by media manipulation, and sustained by massive fundraising. That is why candidates wealthy enough to pay for a significant share of escalating costs (Kennedy, Rockefeller, Bloomberg, Corzine, Romney and many others) have such an advantage in pursuing the race).
Moreover, as the two parties have become more defined and indeed polarised in ideological terms, presidential candidates emerge not from debate within a party organisation but rather impose themselves in a sort of ideological auction. The process is exacerbated in this electoral cycle by the influence of the Tea Party (itself supported by a small number of very wealthy men, from the Koch brothers to Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News)
The second process is that the influence of money in the system is increasingly excessive and distorting. The single reform that would do most to clean up American politics and to make the procedures of election more democratic would be a ban on political advertising. More than half the money spent on electioneering, which threatens to break all records in 2012, goes on advertising - and this overwhelmingly still means television advertising, which remains the essence of American campaigning.
The cost of buying space is exorbitant; the cost of hiring and paying experts to research, write, design, promote and buy political advertising is beyond all but the deepest purses. As a result, political consultants, often guns for hire with little coherent political philosophy, have excessive influence.
A reform of this kind, however, is unthinkable. The Supreme Court, since its decision in Buckley v Valeo in 1976 that political advertising is a form of speech and is therefore protected by the first-amendment guarantee of free speech, has steadily amplified the import of its commitment to this absurd proposition. The present court, dominated by conservative ideologues, has carried the protection of political advertising to new lengths. In January 2010, in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, the court removed all limitations on political expenditure by (among other bodies) business corporations.
This will give the Republican Party, traditionally the representative of corporate business and private wealth, an even greater advantage; and within the Democratic Party it will increase the importance of a number of sources of campaign funding, among them Wall Street and Hollywood. It may well, as a result, make it even more difficult or Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, to be more even-handed in their approach to the (now more vital than ever) politics of the middle east and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The current media dynamics, especially the migration of readers and advertising to the internet, make it likely that there will be even more attention to the personal issues and scandals surrounding the candidates, and less to policy matters (particularly the economy and foreign affairs). In this respect, the hopes of many that social media would democratise political campaigns have so far proved over-optimistic.
The international implications
The second question is already being answered in the multiple signs of a diminishment of Washington’s authority in world politics, all of them overshadowed by the political consequences of the US government’s failure to deal with its debts, trade and structural deficits, and the economic slowdown.
President Obama and his treasury secretary Timothy Geithner have continued to berate European governments for their failure to solve economic problems that Washington itself has scarcely begun to address. For this and other reasons, it is probable that relations between the United States and Europe will deteriorate, perhaps quite sharply and quite soon. This will make the resolution of the economic and financial crisis much harder to achieve. The historic achievements of the alliance forged between the US and European (and other) democracies are near forgotten in contemporary Washington.
The inability of the American political system to resolve its problems has weakened the country’s capacity to sustain a central or decisive part in world affairs. Barack Obama’s reluctance to take the lead over Libya is a much-noticed example, though equally revealing is the influence of domestic politics on his awkward Afghan strategy (a mixture of military “surge” and preparation for withdrawal). The crisis in relations with Pakistan, and the loss of position in the Arab world - where Washington is sleepwalking towards a crisis where it will be found to be allied with Israel and Saudi Arabia against the spread of democracy - emphasise the dangers it faces.
The major commitments of American policy - to “containment” in the cold war, to the "western alliance", to other international obligations - were once clear to its allies and adversaries alike. Some American leaders (such as Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner) continue to behave as if the United States were still a hegemonic power, unchallenged in its financial reach and ideological beliefs as well as militarily paramount. But many of their interlocutors, from China to Latin America and Russia to Israel, are ever bolder in their rejection of the implied claim.
As a result there is a serious and growing disparity between the assumptions of media and politicians in the United States and the realities of the world which its political elites still aspire to dominate. The latter are losing not just the power do so, but perhaps even the will to understand the world.
This ought to be a source of fear rather than of satisfaction abroad. The world’s mounting problems will be hard enough to solve even if the United States is trying to help and capable of doing so - but will be all but insoluble if it is not. But how can the US get into a position where it again can help? Only by a candid acknowledgment that the American political system is very far from being an inspiration to the world or governed by ideals that others now seek to emulate (as the neo-conservatives, with their ill-fated adventures of persuasion or force, believed) - and that this system itself is in serious need of reform.
It is near impossible to imagine any of the eight Republican candidates on show - obsessed as they are with self-pleasing fantasies about the American past - undertaking this work. For his part, Barack Obama was once invested with - and did much to cultivate - huge hopes that he could do so. There has been little reason to believe that in office he understands how vital and unavoidable it is.
John F Kennedy’s favourite general, Maxwell Taylor, posed an old question in 1971 that is more urgent now than ever: "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"