Candidates’ Core Beliefs Buried in
Campaign Rhetoric

Monterey County Herald, November 11, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta

In one year, the nation will go to the polls to elect a new president. Both parties are fighting to unify their political bases. Candidates are fighting to win the nomination. But in this interminable presidential campaign, the battle is being fought over ideology instead of ideas, the past instead of the future, words instead of solutions. The result is an endless flow of sound bites, flip-flops, applause lines and personal attacks that amplify the divisions within the nation.

It is not enough for Democrats to simply blame George Bush. It is not enough for Republicans to play off the fear of Sept. 11 and the divisive issues that were part of the Karl Rove strategy. This nation needs to move on.

What do these candidates really stand for? What are their core beliefs? What kind of America do they want as president? Can they be the great leaders of a nation in deep trouble? This important conversation is missing from the campaign.

The brutal reality is that the next president will face an unprecedented set of crises in a political atmosphere that is gridlocked by divisiveness and partisanship.

The day he or she walks into the Oval Office, the president will assume responsibility for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the larger war on terror. The president will have to deal with global warming, exploding gas prices, a shaky economy and record deficits, a broken health-care system, out-of-control immigration policies, Social Security and Medicare programs overwhelmed by 78 million baby boomers, an education system that is not competitive in a global world and a government besieged by incompetence and distrust.

The president will have to deal with the erosion of America’s strategic and financial stature, the hollowing of its military and the faltering of its diplomatic ability to create and lead meaningful alliances.

On the political front, the president will have to govern in the wake of an executive and legislative paralysis in which both branches of government have spent most of their time blaming each other for why nothing is getting done. Neither party seems willing or able to develop the necessary compromises essential to governing.

This terrible gathering storm threatens our security, our leadership in the world, and the future of our children. This is the reality that will face the next president.

But if you listen to this campaign, the candidates are repeating the tired rhetoric of past campaigns and fighting over issues that have little relevance to the enormous challenges they will face if elected president.

The American people would do well to make clear to all of the candidates that their judgment will not be based on sound bites, TV attack ads or party propaganda. It will be based on which candidates speak to the values that will distinguish greatness from hubris, statesmanship from partisanship and action from paralysis:

  1. Vision of America.

    The candidates owe us a clear statement about the kind of America they want for their children. Every great president has had a transformational vision of the America he wants – from Jefferson and the expansion to the West, to Lincoln and the preservation of the union, to Roosevelt’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier and Reagan’s "tear down this wall" and the end of the Cold War. Voters deserve a larger image of what this country can accomplish.

  2. Unification of the nation.

    This nation will not succeed without a president who can unify. The public is sick and tired of the gridlock and wants a leader who understands the meaning of consensus. Following the 1800 election that had been deadlocked in the Electoral College, Jefferson recognized that his mandate was fragile and reached out to the opposition-"Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists." That is the message these candidates must provide.

  3. Respect for the Constitution.

    Presidents on taking office must raise their right hand and swear to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." This document is the foundation of our democratic form of government. It reflects the values of our forefathers and their fundamental commitment that power must not be centralized in any one branch of government. It has been our principle defense against war, crisis and chaos.

    Every president must defend the nation, but it cannot be at the price of our constitutional freedoms. The current debate over eavesdropping and torture make clear that the next president must respect his oath to defend the nation and the Constitution.

  4. Mobilization of the nation.

    This nation is facing a series of crises that threaten our future. A candidate for president must present a clear strategy for how he or she will deal with these challenges. It is not enough to live by fear. We need to be reminded that this is a nation of hope and sacrifice.

    We have been constantly reminded that we are a nation at war, and yet we have never been mobilized to deal with that war. Every past president in war has called on the nation to serve and pay for the burdens of war, not to pass that debt on to our children. Roosevelt made clear that our only fear was "fear itself" and that everyone would have to bear the burden of winning the war. A candidate for president should not be afraid to challenge the American people to the sacrifices we must make to remain a great nation.

  5. Honesty.

    Because of the many challenges, we need a president who will be straight with the American people. For too long, the leaders of both parties have spent too much time trying to spin the truth. Too many candidates are shaving their positions on issues in order to pacify one constituency or another. This has been the season of flip-flops on social issues, gun control, illegal immigrants and the Iraq War. Candidates need to tell us honestly what their beliefs are and stick to them. In a decade of deep distrust of public officials, no president can lead without restoring that trust.

America today is strong but vulnerable. Strong because of our people and the Constitution. Strong because we are hardworking and productive. Strong because we remain a country of promise and opportunity to people throughout the world. Strong because we have faced great adversity in the past and have prevailed.

Our greatest vulnerability is our failure to appreciate our strengths. It is when our leaders have forgotten or ignored our fundamental values that we lack credibility in the world, are confronted by terrorists and rogue nations, challenged by old adversaries, become addicted to debt and easy credit, and paralyzed by political divisions and gridlock.

But every presidential election is a renewal. For every administration, on Inauguration Day, the clock of history is reset. New presidents can throw off history and start again, rebuilding trust in government and in the values that have made America a great nation. It is time for the candidates to speak to those values.

Readers may write to Panetta at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU-Monterey Bay, Seaside 93955.

LEON PANETTA is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group. His column runs every other month in Commentary.

© 2006 Monterey County Herald and wire service sources.
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