Top ten losers — and a few winners — in the DC debt ceiling debacle

We're THIS close to a solution, folks.

We’re THIS close to a solution, folks.

As the newest American political analyst on Chinese national television, I’ve been asked to explain the U.S. government shutdown and default showdown.

It’s not easy.

How do you explain the farce that Washington has become? Lawmakers shutting down the government because of an issue not directly related to spending. Hostage-taking is for terrorists, not for Republicans.

International observers are even more baffled by the brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. Why, I am asked over and over, would congressional Republicans threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, risk a relapse into recession and jeopardize a very tenuous economic recovery around the world? Why would they, through their illogical enterprise, encourage other nations to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency, which will do nothing but create inflation at home, make borrowing more expensive for the American government and American consumers, and stifle foreign investment in the United States? And why is President Barack Obama incapable of rescuing the nation from the tar pit of Capitol Hill.

It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Are there any winners in the Washington wackiness? Not really, though there are some short-term gainers. Here’s my long list of losers and short list of winners in the continuing congressional catastrophe.

John Boehner

The House Speaker looks like a hostage being forced to read a script by his radical captors. He looks weary. He looks very, very sad.

Barack Obama

He looks weak.

House Republicans

They look extreme. Actually, they look beyond extreme. And incompetent.

The Tea Party

Did we mention extreme? The current situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Senate Republicans

They look weak, too, as the Tea Party tail continues to wag the Republican dog.

The Republican Party

The Grand Old Party is lurching toward the political cliff in the 2014 midterm elections. Its best asset: gerrymandered House districts. Its best ally: discombobulated Democrats.

Joe Biden

Who? Nonexistent.

The United States.

Forget partisan politics. Congress has made the U.S. an international laughingstock. The double showdown has led to grave global doubts about the reliability of the United States and the leadership skill (and power) of its president. So this will hurt the country for a long, long time and its president — whoever that may be, Democrat or Republican.

The U.S. economy

In the short run, thousands of Americans are without paychecks, tourism revenue has plunged and consumer confidence has taken a hit. Businesses have another reason to hold off on hiring. In the long run, interest rates will be higher and loans will be even harder to obtain for individual Americans and corporations alike. And they call Republicans the pro-growth party?

The global economy

The self-induced crisis in Washington has shaken global confidence in the United States If American lawmakers blunder into a default (still unimaginable from my distant vantage point), it would almost certain trigger an international recession as China, Japan, Brazil, the EU and other leading U.S. creditors take a massive hit. The consequences would be so severe that it’s not even worth contemplating.

The U.S. Congress wouldn’t do something so wantonly self-destructive, would they?

Would they?

Remember Smoot-Hawley? Call this modern-day version Cruz-Boehner.


Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

There really are no winners in Washington, but the closest thing to it are the Senate leaders. Instead of acting like squabbling partisans, they are playing the role of sober cops coming to restore order after a frat party has descended into anarchy and drunken debauchery. Officers Reid and McConnell, your country needs you. Now.

Ted Cruz

In the short term, the freshman senator from Texas has become the hero of the ultraright, the face of Fox News, the Earl Grey of the Tea Party. In the long run, he will have to overcome the first impression of two-thirds of Americans (who know who he is) that he is a right-wing ideologue. Polls show that he’s poison among independent and swing voters outside of the Lone Star State.

House Democrats

They are only winners because House Republicans look so, so bad. The Dems haven’t won any awards for profiles in courage or bipartisan bridge building. Except another Bridge to Nowhere.


Ratings are way, way up at the nation’s favorite cable channel for nerds and policy wonks. Heck, it’s the most bizarre reality show on television. And, unlike the Kardashians, it has real-world consequences.


The government in Beijing has won in two ways (so far). First, President Obama canceled his Asia trip, allowing first-year Chinese President Xi to be the star of the show at APEC. And China-bashing Washington Republicans have succeeded in making Beijing the victim of irresponsible fiscal policies in free-enterprise America that could lead to default. A bizarre lesson in capitalism.

Want the latest analysis of U.S. politics? In China, I’m your guy.

rick on cctv

Appearance #2.

I didn’t come to China to be a talking head.

I was thrilled to join the faculty of Tsinghua University this September to teach multimedia journalism and co-direct the Global Business Journalism program. The TV gig has been an unexpected pleasure.

Four times during my first month in Beijing, I’ve been called upon to analyze American economic, diplomatic and political issues for China Central Television’s English-language news show “Dialogue.” The show is blessed with one of the smartest hosts in global TV, Tian Wei, and allows guests to engage in an in-depth dialogue on important international issues.

No yelling. No screaming. Instead, viewers watch a briskly paced discussion with smart questions.

In case you missed my appearances, here are links to the four shows. (I tried to embed the videos from the CCTV web site but WordPress is acting finnicky.

The first show is a discussion of the emerging U.S.-China “major power relationship” in diplomacy. The second is a review of the United Nations resolution on Syria. The third focuses on the Asia Pacific economic summit (APEC) skipped by President Obama because of the government shutdown in DC. And the fourth was — guess what? — about the government shutdown itself and its impact on America, America’s place in the world, and the U.S. and global economies.

You may have better things to do than watching me talk for four hours. But in case you want to take a look … enjoy!









The most prominent American political figures in the global media — and a dozen who get no respect

President Obama at my last White House press conference in August. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

President Obama at my last White House press conference in August. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

After covering the White House and the U.S. Congress for 29 years — and being inside the 24/7 news bubble — it’s fascinating to be, for the first time, on the outside looking in.

Here’s a new outsider’s perspective on which American politicians figure most prominently around the world, and which DC figures vanish from the media scene when you cross the Pacific.

America’s Face around the World

1. President Barack Obama

The president is the president. He gets global press on some stories that earn barely a ripple in America-centered domestic media.

2. Secretary of State John Kerry

He didn’t get elected president, but his stentorian voice is everywhere on international issues. He comes across as knowledgeable, poised and, well, diplomatic.

3. House Speaker John Boehner

The Ohio Republican is the scowling face of the opposition. His soundbites are almost all partisan and negative. Not much of an image to project.

4. Sen. Ted Cruz

The first-year lawmaker from Texas has exploded onto the international stage as the leader of America’s ultraconservatives, which the global media love to highlight. Even people who don’t understand the concept of a filibuster understand that Cruz is the man who shut down the federal government. And he’s not even president.

5. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew

The American media almost never cover the charismatically challenged Treasury Secretary. Most Americans know him as the man with the illegible signature. But he’s often on TV and Internet news reports around the world. He comes across as measured and authoritative.

6. Hillary Clinton

The former U.S. Secretary of State is treated as America’s president-in-waiting. She’s also covered like the leader of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party, as opposed to the dove-ish Obama.

The Dead-to-the-World Dozen

1. Vice President Joe Biden

Never mentioned. Well, almost never.

2. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell

Who is less important than the minority leader of a body that has been eclipsed by the hard-right Republicans in the other chamber?

3. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi

Maybe the only person less important than the Senate Minority Leader is the House Minority Leader.

4. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

He only appears on international TV when he comes up with his sound-bite zingers tearing into the Republicans.

5. Sen. John McCain

A media darling in the U.S., his mavericky style doesn’t translate to an international audience.

6. Sarah Palin

The only thing people in Asia remember about 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee is the report in Game Change that she didn’t know the Korean peninsula was divided into two countries.

7. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the Fox News crowd

They may get good ratings in the USofA, but they don’t exist outside of its borders. And that’s probably fine with them.

8. Sen. Marco Rubio

The Florida freshman’s mystique hasn’t stretched to Asia and Europe, only Latin America and South America.

9. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor

There’s only room for one face of the opposition on international TV, and that’s John Boehner, not his (occasionally) loyal deputy from Virginia.

10. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Barack Obama and John Kerry speak for the U.S. on global issues. The Pentagon chief is a bit player on the international stage.

11. White House press secretary Jay Carney

President Obama’s spokesman, a ubiquituous presence on domestic media, makes only cameo appearances on media outlets outside the U.S.

12. The U.S. Trade Representative

Who is the U.S. trade rep anyway? There are lots of trade stories, but the U.S. Commerce Secretary and U.S. Trade Representative are never quoted. Only Obama or Kerry.


My take on the dysfunction in DC

I’m still getting used to be the interviewee and not the interviewer. Here’s a recent Q&A with me conducted by Katie Perkowski, a super-talented former Texas on the Potomac intern who now works and lives in Bratislava.

Katie’s piece first appeared in WBP Online.


Behind Capitol Hill: Q&A with long-time Washington watchdog

Rick Dunham has had eyes and ears on Capitol Hill and in the White House for three decades, giving him a unique view into US politics. In an interview with WBP Online, the former Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle explains how dramatic political party transformations have led to the dysfunction in Congress we are seeing today.

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

By Katie Perkowski
WBP Online

Few people understand the inner workings of US politics quite as well as Rick Dunham, who covered the White House and Capitol Hill for three decades, during which time he served as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek and board president of the National Press Club.

In a Q&A with WBP Online, Dunham explained the dramatic transformations of the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that he saw during his time in Washington, and why those shifts have led to an ever-dived Congress seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The latest evidence of that now all-too-familiar phenomenon? The federal government’s shutdown, now on day four with no sign of stopping.

Here’s what Dunham had to say:

Q: Can you describe the shift in dynamic you noticed in both the Republican and Democrat parties during your time in Washington? What do you think brought about this change in the way things get done (or don’t)?

There has been a tremendous shift, both culturally and politically, over my three decades in Washington.

One is ideological. Both parties’ representatives were far more diverse in the past. Democrats ranged from far left to far right. Republicans ranged from liberal to very conservative. Now there are no liberals and very few moderates left among Republican lawmakers. And there are very few Democrats remaining who are right of the political center. The party is pretty well split between far left, left and center. Republicans are pretty well divided between right and far right, with a tiny group of centrists. The key Republican division is establishment and insurgent. The establishment Republicans still are in the majority but the radical right Republicans control the agenda through mastery of tactics and willingness to “do the unthinkable.”

Culturally, there has been an even bigger shift. When I arrived in Washington in 1984, Congress was controlled by “doers” and not “talkers.” The goal of lawmakers was to make laws. Legislators used to legislate. Now, the vast majority on both sides of the aisle want to posture and play to their ideological core rather than to get things done.

The great lawmakers I have covered were often very liberal or conservative – Ted Kennedy was hard left and Bob Dole was very conservative – but they believed in moving things forward for their country in the end. There are almost none of those left now, and certainly not enough to get things done.

Q: Covering Texas, you followed Ted Cruz in his rise from solicitor general to senator. What kind of change within the Republican party does Cruz represent? There have been numerous reports out about how senior members of his party, like McCain and Graham are not happy with the way he’s doing things. Do you think there could be a party split among Republicans in the near future? What is the Tea Party’s role in all of this?

The key figures representing the three strands of the Republican future are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. All are ultraconservative but only Rubio among them is pragmatic and willing to cut deals. The other two are ideological purists who would rather lose than compromise. Rand Paul is the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He is anti-government. Period. Ted Cruz is an ultraconservative in the mold of the 1964 version of Barry Goldwater, who believed that extremism in the defense of liberty (as he saw it) is no vice. Cruz is against government unless government will help him accomplish his ideological ends. He also is against (almost) anything Barack Obama is for. I call him the leader of the nihilist strain of the modern Republican Party.

That’s why old-fashioned conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like him. They are very conservative – I don’t buy into the revisionist view of McCain and Graham as moderate because they are willing to cut deals and occasionally act like mavericks.

McCain took an instant dislike to Cruz because Cruz has such an authentic dislike for the institution. McCain respects the institution. Cruz despises it. They are both strong personalities, so it is natural that they will clash. Neither of them is phony. They genuinely dislike each other.

McCain and other Republican leaders believe that Cruz is leading the party on a political suicide mission. They believe he is hoping to burn down the village and then claim to be king of the ashes.

Cruz represents the socially conservative strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Rand Paul represents the pure libertarian strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Both are ideologically pure and strongly “pro-liberty” but both philosophies are distinct and different. They have a slightly different definition of what liberty means.

Q: What kind of precedent do you think it would set if Republicans hold to their current stance and hold the debt ceiling “hostage” as some are calling it in an effort to repeal or delay a law that’s already been passed? Could that lead to similar actions by Congress in the future, or even “revenge” acts of a similar manner by Democrats?

I don’t think it will lead to a “tit for tat” reaction from Democrats in the future. Democrats never held the government or the country hostage during George W. Bush’s administration. I’ve always said that the Democrats’ big problem is that they are too “responsible.” I’m not talking about being ideologically moderate. I mean that they won’t take extreme measures in order to prevail.

Filibusters are another matter. Both sides are irresponsible and hypocritical when it comes to filibusters. That’s another big change in the Washington culture. But that’s another story.

In some ways, Democrats are to blame for all of this. It started with the defeat of Robert Bork, who was very qualified for the Supreme Court (in terms of legal qualifications) but was defeated for ideological reasons, because he was out of the judicial mainstream. That has led to the political equivalent of an arms race where each side is willing to become more and more virulent in order to make political points. It’s gotten to the point that Republicans will block Democratic nominations just because the nominees exist, not even for reasons of ideology or the nominee’s personal issues. That is utterly irresponsible and, I am sorry to say, bipartisan.

Q: Do you think the current party structure in Washington can survive, or should it be changed to prevent the type of mess we’re seeing now?

I see the party structure surviving because that is the history of American representative democracy. We have always had two main parties. The two parties have not always been Republican and Democrat. Since we entered the R/D era, the two parties have changed radically. Now, just about anyone who would have been a Republican at the time of slavery and the Civil War is a Democrat, and anybody who would have been a Democrat at that time is a Republican. The two parties have reversed regional bases. One of the only common threads is that immigrants still tend to be Democrats.

I see the Democratic Party becoming more “moderate” in coming years as more disgruntled former Republicans and moderate young people join the party. I see the Republican Party finally having a showdown between the establishment right and the hard right. It probably will take the nomination of a far-right Republican for president and an overwhelming defeat for the party to move back toward the center. The last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not purists. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the last hard-core conservative to be a presidential nominee. And Reagan would be considered a pragmatic moderate by today’s standards.

One last thought: If the Republicans are to have a future at the presidential level, they cannot afford to continue to lose immigrants, minorities and young voters. Those three blocs are the future. Republicans not only need to maintain their current levels of support, they need to increase them. A similar fate befell Democrats during the 1980s as Ronald Reagan cut into the blue-collar Democratic base, young voters went Republican and old New Deal Democrats died off rapidly. Democrats won just once in 24 years before Bill Clinton started to redefine the Democratic Party with his “New Democrat” movement. We’re at a similar point in reverse now. But I suspect we’ll need a disaster like the Democrats faced in 1980-1984-1988 to convince Republicans to rethink Cruz-ism.

Dunham is now based in Beijing, where he is a professor of multimedia journalism and co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. You can follow him at

To contact the author of this story, e-mail

My local Beijing Walmart isn’t like any you’ve ever visited in the USA

You are leaving the Beijing subway and nearing the entrance to Walmart. It's not like the suburban mall you have in mind.

You are leaving the Beijing subway and nearing the entrance to Walmart.

I had this vision in my mind of what the Beijing Walmart would look like.

Elderly person at the front door welcoming you to the store. Wide aisles. Bright lighting. A little bit of Middle America in the middle of China’s capital.

Definitely not on sale in U.S. Walmarts: Scarlett Caterpillar Fungus.

Definitely not on sale in U.S. Walmarts: Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus.

But no…

My local Haidan district Walmart, just one subway stop south of Tsinghua University’s Wudaokou subway station, is a strange sort of American-Chinese hybrid. The Egg Foo Young of Chinese retailing.

First of all, there is no greeter. There isn’t even a front door, just those semi-transparent plastic flaps that substitute for doors all over China.

The store itself doesn’t resemble any Walmart in the USA. It looks more like your local dollar store. On steroids. Three floors of crowded bargains, from washing machines and treadmills to live turtles (not to bring home as pets).

What’s completely different is the product selection. You can buy Crest and Colgate and Laughing Cow cheese, but not much else that you’d buy in the American big  box.

When’s the last time you saw the Walmart “Great Value” brand bag of Scarlet Caterpillar Fungus in the USA? Or Marinated Duck Gizzard? Or Prickly Ash Powder? Or Purple Sweet Potato snacks? Or Pineapple-flavored Beer? Or Apple Vinegar Drink?

The list goes on — check it out in my slide show.

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I ended up on a shopping spree that cost me more than $40 in yuan. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Well, think of it this way: That’s the cost of about 25 meals on campus. Or three months of cell phone service. I think I’ve stocked my apartment for a month with everything from loose Chinese tea and two kinds of tofu to, yes, purple sweet potato snacking pieces.

My most expensive purchase was a living room rug for the equivalent of $13. The second most costly purchases was imported almonds (for hiking, of course), at about $4.

My shopping journey took four hours, most of it pure entertainment. After all, how many of you can say that you carried a rug in a backpack while you rode a bicycle home from the subway while balancing two bags of groceries?

An American in Tiananmen on China’s National Day

An indelible image that changed world history -- October 1, 1949.

An indelible image that changed world history — October 1, 1949.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong read a statement before a bank of microphones and hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Tiananmen Square declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

Sixty-four years later, I was one of the perhaps dozens of “westerners” visiting Beijing’s most famous landmark on China’s National Day holiday. It is a festive celebration, with special decorations, tourist-friendly hats, face painting, parades and family pilgrimmages.

The Lion and Mao. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

The Lion and Mao. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

The scene, I thought, was very much like the Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall in Washington. Patriotism, pageantry, family, country.

My small group of three Americans (thanks, Caroline and Sara) tried to blend in with the hundreds of thousands — more probably, millions — of Chinese tourists. Well, we were never going to blend in. Caroline and Sara are striking young blondes, and perhaps a dozen Chinese families asked to have their photos taken with them. (Nobody asked me.)

We walked around Tiananmen, headed inside the main gate toward the Forbidden City, and then wandered through the historic core of old Beijing.

I hope this photo essay gives you a sense of the grandeur and the scope of the day.

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