Where is the Battle for Ideas?

Monterey County Herald, May 8, 2005
By Leon E. Panetta
This nation is now confronting some very serious economic problems — inflation and interest rates are increasing, stock values have fallen, record gas prices are gouging working families’ budgets and threatening to slow the economy, deficits are at record levels (as are trade deficits), and Social Security and Medicare are in financial trouble.

Rather than initiating an urgent and serious debate on how we can best confront these issues, the political class in Washington has been consumed by the debates over a brain-damaged woman in Florida, steroids, the ethics of the House Majority Leader, and the fate of the Senate filibuster.

The disconnect between pocketbook concerns of ordinary Americans and the preoccupation of their politicians has helped send President Bush’s approval ratings on the economy down and has bred even greater discontent with the Congress.

This nation was fashioned from a clash of great ideas about how a democracy could best serve the people. This nation would be better served if today’s leaders were fighting over big ideas rather than fighting with each other.

To his credit, whether you agree or disagree with him, President Bush has presented his ideas for the future. Many of them are controversial. Among the most prominent: he believes in an ownership society even if it means weakening some of the traditional safety-net programs; he wants private accounts for Social Security to allow people to invest their retirement money regardless of the risk; he believes that tax cuts, even those that largely benefit the wealthy, are important for the economy even if they increase the deficit; he wants an energy bill that primarily encourages increased production of oil, even if it means further drilling offshore or in wilderness areas; and he believes that the key to improving education is to require federal standards, even though that mandate may not be fully funded.

Again, whether you support or oppose these views, President Bush has made very clear what he wants for this country, and given the votes, that is exactly what he will accomplish. It is fair to say that most Democrats strongly oppose many of these ideas, but they have largely failed to present to the American people their ideas for the future. What is it exactly that they stand for?

In many ways, the reason John Kerry lost the last presidential campaign was that even though many people had serious concerns about President Bush and his policies, they were never quite sure what Kerry stood for. The Democrats in the Congress are in danger of making the same mistake.

Their political hope, of course, is that President Bush and the Republicans simply will self-destruct and they will be able to pick up the pieces. And yet, opposition alone is not enough to win the hearts and minds of the American people.

Of course, ideas can be controversial, but they can also be inspiring. Franklin Roosevelt, near the end of his life, having created the New Deal and led the nation through World War II, could have been excused from having to put forth additional ideas. And Yet, in his last State of the Union address, he proposed a “second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race or creed.”

Roosevelt spoke of the right to a good job, the right to earn a decent living, the right of every family to a decent home, the right of every businessman to trade free from unfair competition or monopolies at home or abroad, the right to adequate medical care, to security in old age and sickness, and to a good education.

He deeply understood the moral covenant that we all embrace in our democracy that says we have an obligation to care for one another. When policies are enacted that favor the few over the many, the powerful over the weak, and focus on getting what you can today and to hell with tomorrow, that covenant is betrayed and this nation loses its most important moral compass.

Democrats have a rare opportunity to embrace that covenant again. But to do so, they cannot hide from their responsibility to say what policies they would put in place if given the trust of the American people.

Let me suggest some ideas that would help shape that essential debate.

• “Opportunity Society” vs. an “Ownership Society.”

This nation should commit itself to an “opportunity society,” not an “ownership society.” Unless people have the opportunity to succeed, they will be lucky to own anything. Most families struggle to make it day to day. Few can afford savings accounts or health accounts. Policies should be advocated that give every citizen a chance to succeed so that they can invest and save for their future.

• No more “Borrow and Spend” vs. “Record Deficits.”

Neither President Bush, Republicans or Democrats will have the resources to achieve anything unless the nation’s deficit is brought under control. The Congress just passed a budget that again increases the debt. Democrats should make clear there will be no more “borrow and spend.” While they have been critical of Republican budgets, they continue to vote for supplemental war funding, new spending and tax cuts that are not paid for. No additional spending or tax cuts should be passed without first paying for them.

• Protect “Guaranteed Benefits” vs. “Private Accounts.”

While Democrats have been justifiably critical of the president’s efforts to privatize Social Security and ignore the crisis in Medicare, they have not presented a specific plan to protect the financial future of either program. The “guaranteed benefits” provided by these programs are at the heart of the moral covenant to care for the elderly and the sick. As in the past, a combination of extending the retirement age, broadening the base of revenues and adjusting benefits for all beneficiaries are the fair, equitable and right way to protect these programs.

• “National Service” vs. “Unfunded Education Mandates.”

Rather than telling states how to educate without providing sufficient funding, a better approach would be to reward those students who give service back to the nation by providing a GI bill of education benefits in return for two years of service.

They could serve in the military, conservation, health care, the Peace Corps or other areas of community service. This would not only help pay for their education, but would promote a greater sense of duty and service to the nation.

• Reduce “Dependence on Fossil Fuel” vs. subsidizing “More Oil Production.”

In the midst of this energy crisis, Democrats should be proposing a plan to reduce, not increase, our dependence on fossil fuel. The current energy bill before the Congress simply continues America’s dependence on oil. A balanced bill that promotes conservation, alternative fuel development, and clean and efficient energy will not only make us energy independent, it can help save the planet from the dangers of global warming.

I understand that many of these ideas are controversial and will anger one constituency or another, but a nation in deep trouble cannot survive without a healthy debate about how we can best protect the future of our children.

If both parties simply look for cheap shots and short-term gains, then the nation is sure to lose out on the future. If, on the other hand, both political parties are willing to advance new ideas as to their vision about this nation in the 21st century, we will all benefit by this battle for ideas.

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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