Now Parties Must Govern Together

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, November 12 , 2006
By Leon E. Panetta

Late in the evening of the 1994 midterm election, I was given the unpleasant task as chief of staff to the president to comment to the press regarding the results of the election.

President Clinton had just suffered a serious defeat as Republicans swept the election by capturing both houses of Congress. Newt Gingrich was to be the new speaker of the House.

The media, of course, were focused on the size of the victory, but I was focused on the implications for the president during the remainder of his term. Since the Republicans had been a minority in Congress for many years, I said the real test of their victory was whether they were now prepared to help the president govern.

Today, some 12 years later, it is now fair to ask the same question of the Democrats.

There is no question that Tuesday marked a significant defeat for the Republicans. As the party in power, they took the brunt of the public’s anger and frustration over the failure of Washington to address the serious problems facing the nation.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell famously declared to the Parliament, “You have been sat here too long for any good you have been doing.” American voters on Tuesday said much the same to the Republicans and President Bush.

As with the election in 1994, much of the blame rightly attaches to the president. Iraq, Katrina, Guantanamo and record deficits have become indictments of an administration that too often had become both incompetent and cavalier. And the Congress, rather than performing its constitutional role of oversight, largely ignored the failures and assumed that in the end, the public would give lawmakers a pass because of the war on terrorism.

But as the recall election in California made clear, there are limits to the people’s tolerance for failed leadership. Fed up by gridlock, scandal and exploding crises, the public exercised the one great power it has in our democracy — the power to change that leadership.

Every election day carries a message not just about change, but also about hope for a better future. There is no question that the public was sick and tired of the way business was not being done in Washington. Their fervent hope now is that the president and the Congress stop the partisan trench warfare and the politics of attack and divide and work together to heal the wounds.

Following the 1994 election, the Republican Congress decided not to work with President Clinton but to directly confront him on economic policy. The result was the shutdown of the federal government over the budget. The public largely blamed the Republicans for their intransigence.

Badly damaged by this confrontation, Speaker Gingrich and other Republican leaders decided that governing was the better alternative. They worked with the president on everything from balancing the budget to welfare reform. Unfortunately, the relationship fell apart over the impeachment crisis.

Today, a Republican president and the Democrats in the Congress face the same choice: Will they work together or will they confront each other in partisan warfare? The answer to that question will tell us a great deal about the future course of the nation.

The people through their vote have made very clear that governing is more important than winning, that tomorrow is more important than today, and that country is more important than party.

In the wake of the election, both parties are saying the right words. The test will be their actions. How they handle the following issues will tell us what choices our political leaders have made:

  • War in Iraq. The war was the primary issue in this election and has driven a deep wedge between the president and the Democrats. Accusations of “cut and run” and “incompetence” have filled the airwaves. And yet, what happens in Iraq will have serious national security implications for future U.S. policy in the Middle East. Americans cannot afford to continue to be divided on this crucial issue.
  • In a few weeks, a bipartisan group that I serve on — the Iraq Study Group — will make its recommendations to both the president and the Congress as to what our future strategy should be in Iraq. My hope is that this will provide the opportunity for the president and Democrats to unify on a common direction to help stabilize Iraq and bring this war to an end. No matter what the mistakes have been that got us into this mess, the war is not just the responsibility of the president or one party. They all have a duty to stop the bickering and work together to find an answer.

  • Immigration reform. The president’s call for comprehensive immigration reform has been stopped by his own party in the House.  He now has the opportunity to take the Senate version of reform that includes tough enforcement, a temporary worker program and a legalization process and have the Democratic House adopt a similar bill.  Instead of the demagoguery and 700-mile fences, both the president and the Congress have the opportunity to pass real and comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Lobbying reform. The Democrats have the opportunity to do what the Republican Congress failed to do — adopt meaningful lobbying reform that will make it more difficult for the Abramoffs of the world to buy off representatives and influence public policy. In addition, the one-party rule of the past 12 years has resulted in a dysfunctional legislative process that ignores the traditional committee processes, restricts full debate and participation, manipulates votes and denies all rights to the minority. Restoring trust in an open legislative process might just help restore trust in the institution of Congress itself.
  • Energy reform. With the growing concern over global warming and our dependence on Middle East oil, the time is long overdue for bipartisan energy reform. The president has talked about our addiction to oil but has supported energy subsidies and policies that have made us more dependent on oil resources. Our future depends on whether we are smart enough to adopt tough emission standards, require energy efficient cars, expand alternative biofuels, and establish incentives for conservation to make this nation energy independent by 2020. Time is running out.
  • Budget summit. In 1990 during the first Bush administration, the president and the bipartisan leadership of the Congress sat down in a budget summit and negotiated an agreement to reduce the deficit. It was the first significant step that led to a balanced federal budget. Today, we have record deficits and absolutely no plan to discipline the budget. The comptroller general, David Walker, recently warned of a looming economic disaster with an $8.5 trillion national debt exploding to $46 trillion over the next few decades. This election provides an opportunity for the president and the Congress to put everything on the table — entitlements, discretionary and defense spending, and revenues — and develop the kind of bipartisan deficit reduction that is long overdue.

Dealing with these issues will tell us whether the president and the Congress got the message from the voters on Election Day.

If the choice is to continue the partisan confrontation, crisis will continue to drive policy in this country. Instead of dealing with important issues, both sides will beat each other up on everything from impeachment to gay marriage, flag burning to abortion, death taxes to prayer in schools, wiretapping to “waterboarding,” scandals to earmarks.

The success or failure of any leader in U.S. history can be judged through his or her ability not just to have a vision of where the country must go in the future but the pragmatism to get us there.

This election has made clear that ideology and stubbornness are not enough. Leaders must also have the common sense to get the job done. The president and the Democrats now have a chance to move the nation in the right direction in the next two years. If they can show the country that they are willing to govern and find consensus, both will benefit from a legacy of accomplishment. If they fail, both Democrats and Republicans will pay the price in 2008.

The lesson of this election is that the public will no longer tolerate incompetence and gridlock when it comes to protecting the future of their children.
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.

© 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
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