These are discouraging days for anyone seriously concerned about the future of our country. In the aftermath of last month’s electoral upheaval, both parties seem hell-bent on misinterpreting the message from the people – those that voted and the many that didn’t. The fact is that most Americans failed to support either party – and with good reason.

On the one side, we hear the mind-numbing mantra of “American exceptionalism.” We are so special a people, this view seems to presume, that we can continue to mismanage our economy, neglect our needs, and ignore our foreign competitors without suffering the consequences. All we must do is ensure no tax increases — especially on those most able to pay — and to starve the federal beast. Exceptionalism is the ideology of the privileged, but its appeal traps many more citizens in the 51st state, the State of Denial, far from the realities of a global economy and the rise of state capitalism.

On the other, we are offered, according to Eliot Spitzer, “mush.” Democrats have no coherent message and thus fall back on “mushy” calls for more economic stimulus and patching the gaping holes in the social safety net. But where are the good jobs to come from? Green technology? Well, come with me to visit China sometime and I’ll show you what a commitment to green technology looks like and what kind of resources it entails. The only competitions in which mush is useful are Iditarod and the race to the bottom. It’s no way to win elections nor to motivate a nation.

Don’t get me wrong. I love this country and thank God every day that when they left Germany my father and my grandfather decided to come here, not South America. I believe in the greatness of our country and was privileged to represent it for 17 years as a diplomat and a trade negotiator. I believe, as one of my Korean friends told me in the middle of an all-night haggling session in Geneva that “America is great because America is good.”

Just for those reasons, I sympathize with the objectives of living within our means, ensuring a sound dollar, and maintaining an open and fair trading system. At the same time, I recognize the need for any civilized society to educate the young, retrain the older, provide decent housing and health care for all, care for the needy, and ensure an investment climate that generates good paying jobs for all those willing to work.

But as a country we have to escape this debate over “exceptional mush.” Our problems are greater than this petty partisan debate presumes. They are more difficult and more urgent, but we hardly speak of them.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson or two while watching this weekend’s football action. We already know that the better team does not always win. It’s possible for a less talented team to beat a more talented one, for an injury-riddled line up to best a healthy one, for a team on a losing streak to whip the hottest team in the league. That’s why we bother to watch.

It might be good to contemplate how the unexpected can happen. Sometimes it’s a lucky bounce of the ball, a mental blunder, or a bad call from the ref. Most times, however, it’s preparation. Football coaching staffs work almost 24/7 to devise elaborate game plans to capitalize on their team’s strengths, exploit the other team’s weaknesses, and produce victories even when not blessed by the odds makers.

On a national level, the steps to a winning game plan are pretty clear:

  • Establish a winning vision of a productive, wealth creating, financially self-reliant country.
  • Agree on overarching strategic objectives to save, invest, and produce in this country and balance our trade and current accounts.
  • Stop foreign currency subsidies.
  • Reform our tax system to rely more on consumption taxes that reward savings, domestic production, and exports and less on income taxation.
  • Expense investment in new plant and equipment to unlock the trillions of dollars of cash that large corporations are sitting on and to promote the expansion of domestic energy production without undue political interference with market forces.
  • Support innovation and its application in this country.
  • Establish a national bank for infrastructure and energy conversion to provide reliable, long-term financing to meet our needs in transportation, communication and energy distribution.
  • Revise our trade policy to reflect the Reagan formula of reciprocity: “free and fair trade with free and fair traders.”

There are many details to be hammered out legislatively and by regulation, of course. But the starting point is a vision. My friend Pat Mulloy likes to quote the book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” Without a vision, the American people are losing. It’s time to work as diligently, as creatively and as urgently as an NFL staff to get a new game plan for America. The whole word is watching.