Déjà Vu All Over Again in Washington

Monterey County Herald, March. 07, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta
During the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to serve in Washington in a number of capacities — from legislative assistant to director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to U.S. Representative to director of the Office of Management and Budget to chief of staff to the president.

Those experiences have taught me a great deal about politics and policies in the nation’s capital. To be blunt, I never cease to be amazed at how the lessons of the past are never learned in Washington.

It is a strange and disturbing phenomenon. After all, most of us are taught at a young age that when you put your hands on a hot stove, you learn never to do it again. People are supposed to learn from their mistakes.

And yet, none of this seems to apply to the highest levels in Washington.

For example, a basic lesson that seems apparent to most outside the capital is that if a serious mistake is made, it is better to admit it and move on than try to hide it. President John F. Kennedy proved the point when he was willing to publicly accept responsibility for the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The public not only accepted his apology but rewarded it by giving him strong support throughout his presidency. But since then, from Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam to Richard Nixon on Watergate to Bill Clinton on Monica to George W. Bush on weapons of mass destruction, there is a failure to admit actions that were wrong.

Perhaps it is the growing influence of political consultants who believe that survival depends on never admitting you were wrong. Perhaps it is a reflection of recent generations that seem less willing to accept responsibility for their actions, whether they are corporate CEOs, politicians or priests.

But the failure to be honest about these failings becomes more disturbing each day. When the former U.N. chief weapons inspector David Kay testified that we got it “all wrong” in our intelligence assessment that there was an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that should have been an opportunity for candor with the American people.

Instead, the president to this day has not admitted that this was a serious intelligence failure. George Tenet, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, has insisted that his agency is not to blame and that intelligence summaries to the White House never concluded that there was an imminent threat. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continue to imply that WMDs may still be found in Iraq. And rather than cooperate in an independent investigation of what happened, the president appointed his own commission to report in a year, long after the election.

What if President Bush had simply said that removing Saddam Hussein from power was right but our prewar intelligence was terribly wrong. Risky? Perhaps. But a lot more refreshing than the excuses we heard.

Here’s another lesson that never gets learned: When facing any emotional and controversial issue, amending the U.S. Constitution should be the last resort. Throughout history, forces on one side or another of an issue have sought to use the Constitution to advance their particular social or cultural agenda. Perhaps the most obvious example was the strong temperance movement in the 1920s that sought to control social behavior through the 18th Amendment on Prohibition. It failed miserably.

But since then, groups have sought relief in constitutional amendments covering issues from prayer in schools to flag burning to abortion to balancing the federal budget.

Today, the latest push is to amend the Constitution to prevent gay marriage. But as the Prohibition Amendment should have made clear, the Constitution should not be used to dictate social behavior or advance one religious or cultural belief over another.

President Franklin Roosevelt stated in his first inaugural address: “Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced.”

That lesson should not be forgotten. Amending the most sacred and fundamental law of the land should be the last alternative.

One other lesson that Washington refuses to learn is that budget deficits cannot take care of themselves. The present debate on federal deficits is like Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again.”

In the 1980s, this nation confronted the exact same fiscal crisis. As a result of a large tax cut, defense increases and enormous growth in entitlement and discretionary spending, record deficits occurred and the national debt quadrupled. Federal borrowing crowded out productive investment, long-term interest rates rose dramatically, the U.S. became dependent on foreign borrowing, net savings hit record lows, important priorities were starved for resources and the most regressive tax of all was placed on our children — the interest they must pay on the debt.

Policy-makers were in gridlock. Republicans did not want to raise taxes or cut defense and Democrats did not want to reduce entitlements or discretionary spending. Neither party wanted to make the tough choices.

They both sought refuge in “quick fix” solutions. None of this worked. The result was the stock market crash in 1987. Ultimately, crisis forced leadership to act.

Today, the U.S. is repeating exactly the same mistakes in what is perhaps the most fiscally irresponsible period in our history. Record $500 billion deficits, an addition to the debt of close to $4 trillion over the next decade, defense and homeland security costs that are not even fully reflected in the budget and 77 million baby boomers who will retire in the next 10 to 20 years are creating the kind of demographic and fiscal crisis to which no one is paying attention, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The president and the Congress have failed to exercise fiscal discipline and remain in gridlock over the tough choices.

The lessons of the past are clear: You cannot balance the budget by pretending to go after just one part of the budget and exempt others — everything must be on the table, deficit reduction must be bipartisan, and it must be fair, balanced, credible and enforceable. If political leaders are not willing to make these tough choices, the alternative will again be crisis.

In the end, the failure to learn from the lessons of the past may say more about the American people than about their elected leaders. It is only when the American people are outraged by the failure to accept responsibility that change will take place. Californians recently expressed their disgust and frustration over the failure of leadership in the recall election. Had the legislature as well as the governor been on the ballot, all would have been recalled. The same is true for Washington.

Perhaps it is only when the president and the Congress recognize that their political survival is at stake that they will finally learn the important lessons of the past.

Leon Panetta’s column appears every other month in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU-Monterey Bay, Seaside 93955.


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