Summer of Our Discontent

Monterey County Herald, September 7, 2003
By Leon E. Panetta
This has not been one of those good old and quiet summertimes. Bombings, killings, deficits, blackouts, and recall election – not exactly the kind of summer vacation President Bush or the rest of the nation really wanted. If John Steinbeck were still alive, perhaps he would have described it as “the summer of our discontent.”

Every crisis only reinforced the sense that we seem to be tumbling through time without any clear vision, direction or policy about the future. Fate more than leadership appears to be in control of our destiny. Is this one of those moments in history when events drive what happens to humanity rather than the other way around?

In Iraq, the tragic bombings of the United Nations headquarters and the Shiite shrine make clear that little if any real security has been established in that devastated nation. Every day, our troops are being shot at or killed – more than the number killed in the war and coming after the president declared the “major combat over.” The U.S. is carrying the full burden of trying to restore order with little international, United Nations or Iraqi support. While the president says there will be “no retreat,” the question is “retreat” from what? Surely, the present chaos is not an acceptable alternative. More needs to be done than just toughing it out. We may have won the war, but we are in danger of losing the peace.

In the Middle East, suicide bombers and the rumble of tanks have again exploded in a new cycle of brutality, killings and revenge. The punch-counterpunch of violence is threatening to shred the fragile road map for peace put forward by the U.S. four months ago. The Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas does not have the political clout or military muscle to clash with the militants, and the government of Ariel Sharon does not have the patience to wait for the Palestinians to get their act together. The U.S. seems paralyzed to engage in any strong diplomatic effort to restore peace. Events are driving policy and as the Secretary of State warned, “the end of the road map is a cliff that both sides will fall off.”

Here in the U.S., the economy is struggling along showing some progress but continuing to suffer from the lack of new jobs and skyrocketing deficits. On August 26, the Congressional Budget Office projected deficits totaling $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. But if the Congress makes the tax cuts permanent and provides increased spending for the military, the Iraq occupation and reconstruction, and a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, the deficits could soar to $5.1 trillion. Add to this the costs of the retirement of the baby boomers, increased federal borrowing and higher interest rates and the result will be an economy that will have a hard time recovering. But despite this tragic mortgaging of our future, the president says not to worry because the tax cuts are working just fine, the Congress keeps on spending, and none of the candidates for president has proposed any semblance of a plan for disciplining the federal budget. Words are little comfort when there is no firm policy to restore fiscal sanity.

In the middle of August, the largest blackout in North American history hit. It affected eight states and 50 million people and could cost up to $5 billion. It is clear that the electrical grid is outdated, overloaded and in bad need of repair. But instead of a broad national commitment to replacing the grid, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, reforming our energy laws and habits, and developing safer, cleaner, less expensive alternatives, both political parties are resorting to the same political finger pointing that gridlocked energy policy for the last 25 years. Absent a very different political response to this crisis, blackouts and brownouts could be with us for a long time.

And then, of course, there is California, where we are going through our own summer version of political “Looney Tunes” with the recall election. Some have decided that it is not enough to have an election for governor every four years. They have decided that the way to encourage bold leadership is to threaten elected officials with recall elections every year. Despite the claim that the purpose of the recall is to restore leadership and fiscal discipline to the State, not one of the 135 candidates for governor has presented a comprehensive, rational and politically workable plan to deal with the state’s fiscal disaster. In a state where over 80 percent of the general fund goes to education, health and corrections, and where both parties have resorted to increased borrowing to the point that our bonds have junk bond status, the candidates are all mouthing the same old ideological nostrums and simplistic solutions that got us into trouble in the first place. All we need now is for Arnold to say that the answer to the budget deficit is to shoot it.

Enough is enough. I feel like the news anchor in the movie “Network” that suddenly throws open his office window and shouts to the world “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

This nation needs a bucket of ice water in the face to wake up to the dangers of ignoring the events that are controlling our fate and jeopardizing our future. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Unfortunately, the fundamental driving force in politics today is not to reach out and appeal to new voters based on bold policies or visions for the future but to rely on the same old, tired partisan rhetoric that is supposed to drive the party base to the polls.

It is considered risky by the political operatives for either party to inspire any creative or controversial thought or debate for fear that it just might antagonize the conservative or liberal base. This is the kind of political nonsense that prevents both parties from having the necessary imagination to confront old challenges with new ideas. The result is that crisis rather than leadership drives the fate of a nation. Is it any wonder that this summer has seen a series of crises impacting on almost every phase of our lives?

Change will happen only when both parties believe that political power rests more with the broad spectrum of independent voters at the center than at the narrow ideological extremes. But for that to happen, those voters will have to wake up and exercise their power to vote. They could begin by demanding that elected leaders and candidates be honest with them about what is really happening and what needs to be done. The process must reward and not penalize those that have the courage to speak out and demand change and sacrifice.

This nation has had the courage to respond before in even tougher times. In the early 1940s, it faced a Europe conquered by Hitler, Britain, threatened by the Nazi war machine, key elements of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and a nation was less than fully prepared for all out war. And yet, through the courage of its leaders and the commitment of its people, America, not world events, controlled its own fate. It achieved victory and a better future for all of us.

We need to make that same kind of commitment today. Our destiny must be in our hands.

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.


© 2003 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
All Rights Reserved.