Healing the Nation

San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, October 25, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta
Election day, it is to be hoped, will bring to an end one of the most divisive political campaigns for the presidency in more than a generation.

It is divisive in part because both candidates are locked in a close race that will depend on who can turn out his political base to vote. To do that, each must stress the political differences that motivate core constituencies.

It is also divisive because there just happen to be strong disagreements between these two candidates on the key issues facing the nation. These differences have been driven home by an onslaught of attack ads that have portrayed one candidate as indecisive, unpatriotic and a big government liberal and the other as stubborn, out of touch and ideological.

Is it any wonder that the country is divided?

But the responsibility of presidents once elected is not to further divide or ignore our differences but to work to heal the nation. Successful presidents have understood that in the heat of momentous events that have split the country between north and south, rich and poor, black and white, their primary task was to bind the wounds and bring the nation together. That challenge required the kind of statesmanship that speaks to our common values and to the ideals of a great nation that are stronger than our differences.

But for presidents to lead, the American people have to give them the opportunity to govern. In our democracy, differences are resolved by the vote of the people. We may not like the result, but we generally accept the process for deciding who wins and who loses. That is an important part of the healing process.

But what if that doesn’t happen? What if on Nov. 3, we still do not know who the president will be because a close election is being litigated in a dozen different states?

Four years ago, it was not until more than a month after the election — Dec. 13, 2000 — that we finally knew who would be president. Even then, because the U.S. Supreme Court made the final decision in a 5-4 decision, there were many who never accepted the result. Imagine having not just Florida, but election disputes in all of the closely contested states. Teams of lawyers have already been deployed to these states by both parties.

If the process from four years ago is any indication, the lawyers will demand recounts, the recount process will be prolonged and controversial, the results will be contested by the losing party, appeals will go to the state and federal courts and, ultimately, the cases could all wind up in the lap of the Supreme Court with the election perhaps even going to the House of Representatives. It could be late December or early January before we know who the president will be. This is not an unlikely scenario.

The question is not whether the legal or political process established by the Constitution can ultimately resolve who will be president; the real question is how much additional damage will all of this do to the divisions in the nation?

Four years ago, President Bush had the opportunity to heal the nation following a disputed election, and he failed. One can only hope that if Sen. John Kerry is elected, he will have learned from that bitter lesson.

Perhaps our best hope is that one of these candidates will win by a landslide and spare us all from this trauma. But if not, this will be a test for both the candidates and all of the American people. Will we have the patience to take a deep breath, set aside our differences and allow the Constitution to work, or will we further divide and paralyze our democracy? How each of these candidates handles the potential for further damage to a divided country will tell us a lot about what lies ahead and whether our nation can be healed.

Leon E. Panetta, a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993 and chief of staff to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997, is director of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University at Monterey Bay.


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