Political crossroads: heal or divide

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, November 7, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta

Few would disagree that America has just been through the most divisive presidential campaign of a generation. Like all national elections, it brings us to a crucial political crossroads: will the president and the Republican and Democratic parties begin the process of healing the nation or will they continue to further divide the American people?

We have experienced almost a year of political mudslinging that has demonized each candidate. On Capitol Hill, both parties have engaged in the kind of political trench warfare that has contributed to legislative gridlock and recrimination. Special interests and campaign consultants have driven those differences even deeper in the effort to mobilize their political base to the polls.

In a word, the principle strategy of both campaigns was aimed not at unifying the nation, but at dividing it in order to win.

Successful presidents in our history have been able to govern based on a vision of hope: the hope that we could bind the wounds between the North and the South after a devastating civil war; the hope that we could provide safe food and working conditions in the wake of the industrial revolution; the hope that we could survive the damage of a deep economic depression and defend the nation from a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor; and the hope that a new frontier could conquer space and bring the nation into the 21st century.

Unfortunately, much of this campaign was built on fear, not hope. President Bush portrayed Senator Kerry as weak and unreliable. Senator Kerry denounced President Bush as a reckless leader who started a fruitless war and enraged our allies.

So-called wedge issues like gay marriage, abortion, gun control and stem cell research were used to drive conservative constituencies to the polls to vote Republican. Democrats stressed the fear of a resurrected draft, the loss of Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose, the abuses of the Patriot Act, and the appointment of more extreme Supreme Court Justices to drive liberal voters to the voting booth.

These divisive issues were pounded home each day by over a billion dollars of attack ads that barraged the battlefield states.

Is it any wonder that America is badly divided? We wake up the day after the election and wonder whether we will reap the whirlwind sowed by both campaigns or whether we can begin the process of reconciliation.

The good news is that both candidates in their speeches after the election sent a message that it was time to bring the country together. The American people have shown a remarkable ability to pull together after an election. They respect the processes established by our Constitution and are willing to accept the winner and move on. The test is whether our elected leaders are willing to do the same — to put the issues that divide us aside and try to address the common concerns and values that our families share about the future.

Presidents who have had the ability to rally the nation around those common values have built the kind of broad support they needed to succeed.

The fundamental bond of all Americans, whether we are from a red or blue state, is that we want a better life for our children — the ability to give them a decent education, provide quality health care, the opportunity for them to get a good job and earn a decent living in a peaceful and secure world.

Four years ago, when President Bush became president, it was a closely contested election decided by the Supreme Court in a split 5-4 vote. He did not win the popular vote and clearly had no mandate to implement an ideological agenda. With a nation angry, divided and frustrated over the disputed election, he had the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus — to be the compassionate conservative. He failed.

Again, in the wake of September 11th, he had the opportunity to build a strong bipartisan consensus against the war on terrorism. In the devastation of the attacks, he could have built the kind of national and international unity that would have served us well in fighting terrorists in the world. He failed.

The question today is whether that same President Bush, having won the popular vote and retained control of the House and Senate, will be capable of doing what he was unable or unwilling to do after the last election and September 11th — unify an even more divided nation. He has been given another chance to do the right thing.

The danger, of course, is that he will assume that he has a mandate to continue to pursue an ideological agenda. Power can lead to arrogance and the greater the power, the greater the arrogance. If that happens, it will only serve to aggravate the differences in our society.

For the sake of the country, he ought to set aside the emotional wedge issues: same-sex marriage should be left to the states; if he is opposed to big government in health care, he should be equally opposed to big government telling families what moral decisions they should make when it comes to the health of a mother; and while his faith in God is to be respected, he should be careful not to impose that faith on others or cross the constitutional line between separation of church and state in our democracy.

The larger issues that threaten our future should be his primary focus in the next four years: stabilizing the situation in Iraq and ensuring a free and fair election; repairing the damage to our alliances throughout the world so that we can have a unified front in the war on terrorism; finding Osama bin Laden and destroying the al-Qaida network; reforming Social Security and Medicare to protect those programs for the wave of elderly and future retirees; and reducing and disciplining a runaway federal budget deficit that is threatening our economic recovery.

If the president is willing to focus on these challenges and build the kind of bipartisan consensus he failed to do in his first term, he has a real chance to fulfill the awesome responsibility of pulling this nation together.

As for Democrats, they will never be a competitive national party unless they are willing to compete politically in that block of southern and Midwest states painted red on the election map. Many rural and conservative Christian families simply do not believe that Democrats understand their very real concerns about the moral, economic and security interests of the nation. The party of Roosevelt became the party of Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11″ in their mind.

The encouraging news is that demographic changes occurring throughout the southwest and western regions of the nation tend to favor Democrats but they have to earn the support of these voters. To do that, they must be credible in speaking to the values and concerns of middle America.

If President Bush is of a mind to truly reach out to Democrats, then Democrats in turn have to be willing to reach out to him and be part of the process of reconciliation.

The last four years have been an ugly period of gridlock, partisan trench warfare and deep divisions in the nation and in the world. If the president and both parties again decide that winning is more important than governing, it is likely that we will see another four years of recrimination and deadlock.

If, on the other hand, the president and both parties decide that they are willing to make the tough political sacrifices necessary to govern this divided nation, then perhaps — just perhaps — they will choose the crossroads that will lead to healing our nation. We pray they will choose wisely.



LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.



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