From Athens to Iowa: Let the Games Begin

Monterey County Herald, January 11, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta
2004 will mark the year of the games – the Olympic games in Athens and the more important political games in the race for the White House.

When the torch is lit in Athens, and when the Iowa primary takes place in a few days, both games will begin. One involves the fate of athletes but the other involves the fate of a nation. The power of the American people to elect our leaders is at the very heart and soul of our democracy. Alex de Tocqueville observed that America is a nation that is governed by the “sovereignty of the people.” Nothing symbolizes that sovereignty more than the ability of the people to select the next president of the United States.

This year, a Democrat who wins the primaries will challenge an incumbent Republican president and the question is whether it will be close or a landslide.

The last 30 days have marked a significant upturn in the president’s fortunes. The combination of the president’s surprise Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Iraq, along with the capture of Saddam Hussein and the passage of the prescription drug bill, have increased his approval ratings.

His job approval stands at 55 percent, with one Gallup Poll showing it as high as 63 percent. That approval level is the highest for President Bush since June and, more significantly, higher than any of his predecessors enjoyed at the same point in their campaigns.

Approval ratings, of course, are no guarantee of victory. His father had a 52 percent approval rating in December 1991 and lost with 37 percent of the vote. President Carter had a 54 percent approval rating in December 1979 and lost with 41 percent.

The historical pattern is that sitting presidents who fail on Election Day lose a big chunk of their December approval ratings. Whether the 2004 election will be competitive will depend on whether Bush can hold his approval ratings. A lot of this depends on the quality of his opponent and what events or issues dominate 2004.

Right now, it is fair to say that the Democratic candidates are having a hard time getting any real attention from the American people. However, the coming few months will see a flurry of election activity that is even more concentrated than in recent American election years.

The first votes to pick the Democrat’s presidential candidate will be cast in Iowa on Jan. 19 and in New Hampshire on Jan. 27, both slightly earlier than usual. Thereafter, the votes come fast and furious. Seven states hold ballots a week after New Hampshire, including South Carolina. Four days later come Michigan and Washington. Nine more hold their votes in February, and the process culminates on March 2 with contests in 10 states accounting for one-third of all pledged democratic delegates to the nominating convention. They include California, New York, Ohio and Georgia.

The idea was to give the winning candidate more time to raise money and heal wounds from the nomination battle before taking on President Bush. The timetable was designed to favor an establishment candidate but the beneficiary may well be an outsider.

By appealing to the party’s antiwar sentiments and especially their anger at President Bush, Howard Dean is ahead in the “invisible primary” – the contest for money, momentum and endorsements. To his credit, regardless of whether he wins or loses, he will have changed the dynamic of election politics by reaching out through the Internet for funds and support from voters who long felt disenfranchised by the election process. The polls show him ahead of the field in New Hampshire and neck-and-neck with Dick Gephardt in Iowa.

There is, however, much that can change in politics. The “Stop-Dean machine” has gone into overdrive. Dean himself has made a series of statements that have come back to haunt him. His remark that he wanted to be “the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” his criticisms of Bill Clinton for not doing enough to stand up to Republicans, his unwillingness to pronounce Osama bin Laden guilty of the Sept. 11 attacks and his assertion that the capture of Saddam Hussein would not make America safer – all of this and more have become the focus of attack by his opponents and potential fodder for Republicans in a November election should he win the nomination.

And yet, he continues to maintain his lead in the polls. If Dean loses in Iowa and sees his lead diminish in New Hampshire, that will level the field for the remaining primaries. On the other hand, if Dean wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could very well cripple his opposition. Whoever wins, they will face the problem of healing the divisions from the primaries, raising the necessary money to compete with Mr. Bush’s $200 million, and competing with a well-organized incumbent president for the national electorate.

Interestingly, Bush continues to look vulnerable when it comes to his reelection. Americans are split down the middle – 46 percent say yes and 46 percent say no. If the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate with a heavy loss of American lives, if the report of the commission investigating the attacks of September 11 finds damaging information about what the administration knew, if the new Department of Homeland Security fails to improve domestic security and prevent another terrorist attack, the president could bear the blame. That’s a lot of ifs but added to a record federal deficit, a prescription drug bill that may fail expectations, a dismal environmental record, a unilateral foreign policy that ignores international institutions and support, and suddenly the election could become very close.

And yet, as history has told us time and time again, if the economy continues to improve with increasing jobs and consumer confidence, that is a very strong attribute for a sitting president. And if the democratic nominee is considered weak on national security, it may be difficult to turn that issue against the president.

As we learned four years ago, the presidential race remains close because the nation is deeply divided and polarized. I believe the bigger problem for the American people is that neither the president nor any of the Democratic candidates have presented the nation with a clear positive vision of where they want to take the country. The campaigns on both sides are largely based on anger. Bush policies have focused largely on rewarding important interests with tax cuts, defense contracts, prescription drugs and energy tax breaks that may pacify key supporters but burden our children with a huge debt. Democrats have played to the anger with Bush, too often appeased their own key voting constituencies and failed to clearly tell the American people how they would do better in improving the lives of our children.

If this election is about anger and special interests, then the American people will lose no matter who ultimately wins. But if a successful candidate can present a vision of America that does not just serve the few but one that creates opportunity for all, then we all can be winners.

Sacrificing for the future instead of taking what you can today, accepting responsibility over greed, and working not for special interests but for the whole country – these are the values that should be embraced by candidates for the presidency.

The message of successful presidencies is that we can be a better nation if we work to improve ourselves and our fellow citizens. That is a principle that works in politics and the Olympics.


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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