Time for a Party That Can Govern

Monterey County Herald, March 13, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta
Frankly, I’m getting a little sick and tired of watching both political parties at the federal and state level constantly fighting each other like two punch-drunk boxers. Neither seems willing or able to do the job they were elected to do — govern in the best interest of all the people.

Each blames the other and there’s plenty of blame to go around. But the political system is badly broken and somehow we have to move beyond the gridlock.

Pick up any newspaper and the headlines are a constant barrage of attack and counterattack from Social Security to the budget, from tax reform and health care to energy, education, court nominees, redistricting and pension reform.

The Republicans seem hopelessly trapped by an ideological agenda and a growing arrogance of power. The Democrats seem afraid to advance any new or bold ideas about the future for fear of upsetting their political base and losing more power.

The result is that the Republicans blindly propose and the Democrats blindly oppose.

In the absence of a willingness of either to truly engage the other in an honest effort to resolve problems and find bipartisan solutions, each operates like drones designed by political consultants and pollsters. Conflict is more important than consensus. Politics is more important than policy. And winning is more important than governing.

At the very moment in history when we are urging the rest of the world to embrace freedom, this nation’s democracy is being poorly served by both political parties.

With record deficits consuming the nation’s resources, the president has proposed a budget that increases future deficits. The budget fails to pay for the costs of the war, ignores the cost of making the tax cuts permanent, does not even acknowledge the trillions that must be borrowed to create private accounts in Social Security, and does nothing to control the exploding costs of Medicare.

The largest cuts — more than $214 billion in five years — are in programs like education for the disadvantaged, child care, housing assistance, Head Start and veterans’ benefits.

This is a nation in which both Democrats and Republicans have historically recognized that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed and share in the burdens and fruits of our democracy. The president’s budget turns that principle on its head. And yet, the Democrats have presented no alternative.

Social Security has become a political club for both parties. The president is engaged in a prolonged public relations campaign to prove that the system is in trouble. But what is sorely missing from this debate is that no one — the president, the Republicans or the Democrats — has presented a firm proposal to fix the long-term financial problems facing Social Security.

Medicare is in more trouble than Social Security. The estimates are that Medicare’s exploding costs could bankrupt the system within the decade. Medicaid, the program that serves the poorest of the poor, is being targeted for a $40 billion cut in the budget. The nation’s governors, who are having a hard time trying to maintain current benefits, are pleading for time to reform the system first. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have offered any solution to the health-care crisis or how to reform Medicare or Medicaid.

The Republicans in the Senate are threatening to do away with the right to filibuster if Democrats oppose the president’s more controversial court nominees. This threat is being made despite the fact that the Republicans used the filibuster to stop several of President Clinton’s nominees and Democrats have approved the vast majority of President Bush’s nominations to the court. Democrats have labeled this effort the “nuclear option” and have threatened to block all of the business in the Senate.

Here in California, the governor, who was elected in a recall election to end partisan gridlock, is threatening to take his reform issues on redistricting, education merit pay, pension reform and balancing the budget to a special election in November. The Democrats in the Legislature are threatening to add initiatives of their own. Right now, there are some 81 initiatives that are being discussed as possibilities for the November ballot at a potential cost of well over $80 million.

This state has had more than 600 initiatives in the last decade. With everything being done by initiative in this state, one might question why we need a governor or Legislature at all!

These are just some of the disputes that are bogged down in partisan rancor. Each party has virtually exhausted every threat, intimidation, name-calling attack and counterpunch. The only ones who really benefit from all this conflict are the political consultants who are sure to make a lot of money fashioning attack messages. The real losers are the public.

What the parties have not even begun to exhaust is an honest effort to try and work together to govern the nation and the state. Both are so consumed by the fear that the other will gain the political advantage that they are forgetting about the one thing neither can afford to lose — the trust of the people.

At some point, people give up on both parties. They either walk away from the whole mess in disgust or revolt through the ballot box.

The reality is that with just a little common sense and good will, the solutions to many of the crises facing the nation and the state are within reach. These compromises may not please the far left or the far right but they would be welcome relief for the overwhelming number of decent and hardworking citizens who just want a government that works.

Is it really too much to ask that Social Security be resolved in the same way that it was in the 1980s between Republicans and Democrats? It took a combination of revenue increases and benefit reductions and it worked. Both sides compromised and it passed.

Is it really too much to ask that deficits at both the federal and state level be addressed by putting both spending and revenues on the table? Every past successful budget that has reduced deficits has included both so that the burden was fairly shared by all in our society. Those compromises worked and produced a balanced budget. Surely it can happen again.

The fundamental question is whether both parties believe it is in their best interest to govern together or continue this mindless gridlock.

In the course of our history, when both parties have locked in battle and lost sight of the larger common good, third parties have emerged to challenge the status quo and fill the vacuum of leadership. While third parties have largely failed to displace the two political parties, they usually serve the purpose of slapping a little sense into both.

The better course would be for both the Republican and Democratic parties to become the parties that can govern our democracy. But if they fail, they should not take the voters for granted. At some point, the people may just hand that responsibility to a party that will do what they were elected to do — govern.

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, CA 93955.


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