TRAINS ON DIFFERENT TRACKS…. A major global power is making the necessary infrastructure investments to generate tremendous economic growth and create tens of thousands of good jobs. It’s not us.

The Chinese bullet train, which has the world’s fastest average speed, connects Guangzhou, the southern coastal manufacturing center, to Wuhan, deep in the interior. In a little more than three hours, it travels 664 miles, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak’s fastest train, the Acela, takes to go from Boston just to New York.

Even more impressive, the Guangzhou-to-Wuhan train is just one of 42 high-speed lines recently opened or set to open by 2012 in China. By comparison, the United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Fla.

Speaking at that site last month, President Obama warned that the United States was falling behind Asia and Europe in high-speed rail construction and other clean energy industries. “Other countries aren’t waiting,” he said. “They want those jobs. China wants those jobs. Germany wants those jobs. They are going after them hard, making the investments required.”

Indeed, the web of superfast trains promises to make China even more economically competitive, connecting this vast country — roughly the same size as the United States — as never before, much as the building of the Interstate highway system increased productivity and reduced costs in America a half-century ago.

An Amtrak executive noted, “The sheer volume of equipment that they will require, and the technology that will have to be developed, will simply catapult them into a leadership position.”

We can compete, and the Obama administration wants us to compete, but it would take considerable infrastructure investment and a functioning legislative process. Since government spending has suddenly become a bad thing, while mandatory supermajorities have suddenly become good things, the United States will just have to watch as a global rival is “catapulted into a leadership position” that should be ours for the taking.

I continue to think the debate over how to maintain American preeminence in the 21st century is the political debate that needs to happen, whether Republicans like it or not. On high-speed rail, for example, a massive federal investment would be a huge economic stimulus, make us more competitive, and help the enviromment. But it’s not really an option anymore.

It’s easier to stick our heads in the sand and count on tax cuts as the solution to every problem, but it’s reasonable to think just about every policy dispute on the American landscape can, and probably should, be reframed to answer the question: how does this position the United States for global competition in the 21st century?

On health care, energy, education, manufacturing, President Obama doesn’t want to settle for second place. Republican policymakers don’t even want to compete if it means government action and government spending.

Americans, accustomed to being on top, may not realize that our preeminence on the international stage is going to take a lot of hard work going forward. If the only relevant question in the American discourse is over big vs. small government, we’re in a race we’re very likely to lose.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.