We Won. Now What?

New York Times , Sunday, November 12 , 2006
By Leon E. Panetta

We govern our democracy either by leadership or by crisis. Last Tuesday, the American people sent a clear message that they are sick and tired of government by crisis. They elected Democrats to the House and Senate not to prolong gridlock, but to govern.

There are those who believe that the best political strategy for 2008 is for the Democrats to continue to confront President Bush and seal his fate as a failed president. The danger, however, is that if the Democrats become nothing more than a party of obstruction, it will be only a matter of time before they too will lose the trust of the American people. The lesson of this election is that the public will no longer tolerate incompetence and gridlock, whether it comes from the Republicans or the Democrats.

Twelve years ago, President Clinton suffered a similar defeat when Republicans captured both houses of Congress. As chief of staff to the president at the time, I was asked to comment on the implications of that midterm election for the president and the future of the nation. My response was that the real question was whether a party that had been a minority in Congress was now prepared to work with the president to govern the nation.

Today it is fair to ask the same question of the Democrats.  In 1994, the Republicans decided they would directly challenge the president with their Contract With America. The result was the shutdown of the federal government. Badly damaged by the public outrage over such antics, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich decided that Republicans had to work with the president if they were to survive. This led to a period of cooperation that produced, among other achievements, a balanced federal budget and welfare reform. The Republicans held their majority in 1996.

In the wake of this election, the Democrats and the president face the same choice: gridlock or cooperation?

While both sides are speaking the words of reconciliation, nothing will really change until they can trust each other. After six years of partisan trench warfare, that will not be easy. It begins with a cease-fire on the rhetoric of cheap shots and ultimatums. Karl Rove and other political consultants need to take a long vacation. Both sides need to speak honestly with each other and be willing to compromise.

The legislative work can begin on areas where there is likely consensus: immigration reform, lobbying and ethics reform, and education with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
If that works, Congress and the administration can move on to negotiate tougher issues like establishing long-term budget discipline, expanding energy alternatives, fixing the prescription drug benefit and increasing the minimum wage.

And, finally, on the war in Iraq, despite the bitter differences, both the Democrats and the president face the same brutal reality. We need a new strategy to stabilize Iraq so that our troops can begin to come home without leaving a disaster behind. The president took an important step by replacing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates. The Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, of which I am a member, will soon make its recommendations, which we hope will provide the beginning of a unified strategy.

Democracy needs the trust of the people. But that can only occur if our elected leaders can trust one another. That is not only good politics, it just happens to be good for the country.
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 New York Times, All Rights Reserved.