Americans reject fear tactics

Monterey County Herald, March 9, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta
In the depths of the Depression in 1933, with more than a third of the nation “ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished,” Franklin Roosevelt made clear to a desperate people that the greatest threat was from fear itself.

Seventy-five years later, in the midst of unprecedented foreign and domestic crises, will America surrender to fear or will the candidates for president appeal to the better angels of our nature?

Unfortunately, fear remains an appealing weapon in the modern political arsenal. In a tight battle, the temptation is to scare the hell out of the public in order to win an issue or beat an opponent. Consultants design campaigns to get voters to vote their guts and not their brains. This appeal to the lowest common denominator afflicts both the way this nation elects its leaders and ultimately the way these leaders govern.

Fear exacts a terrible toll on our democracy. Five years ago, America went to war in Iraq over the false fear that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Even though we now know that there were intelligence officials who questioned the assertion, few leaders were willing to challenge this argument for war because they knew it might undermine public support for the president’s decision to invade Iraq.

More recently, President Bush vetoed a law that would require the CIA and all the intelligence services to abide by the same rules on torture as contained in the U.S. Army Field Manual.

The president says the rules are too restrictive, implying that the use of some forms of torture just could help avoid another Sept. 11.

But all forms of torture have long been prohibited by American law and international treaties respected by Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

Our forefathers prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment” because that was how tyrants and despots ruled in the 1700s. They wanted an America that was better than that. Torture is illegal, immoral, dangerous and counterproductive. And yet, the president is using fear to trump the law.

The same rationale is used to justify eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without a warrant. The president has made clear that the failure of the Congress to pass this authority could jeopardize our security. Instead of trying to negotiate a compromise with Congress that would meet both our intelligence and privacy concerns, it is easier to threaten with fear.

Campaigns are primers for scaring the public. Just within the few days leading to the Ohio and Texas primaries, a Clinton ad appeared that showed a ringing red phone in the Oval Office and scenes of a sleeping child.

The voice-over made clear that the child could be jeopardized if the person answering the phone did not have the foreign policy experience to do the right thing. Barack Obama responded with an ad that used the same ringing red phone and child but argued that it was judgment, not experience, that would save the child.

If Obama becomes the Democratic candidate, will Republican John McCain allow his consultants to use race, Obama’s middle name of Hussein and a tourist snapshot in Somali dress to smear his opponent’s patriotism?

Some of McCain’s supporters have already made this attack. The fear argument is to make Obama into some kind of Manchurian candidate, a closet anti-Semitic jihadist trained in a madrasa. After all, it did not take much to attack the patriotism of Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran.

If race, innuendo and fear become the principal weapons of this campaign, it could become one of the ugliest political races in modern history.

The good news is that the American people appear to have rejected the tactics of fear. They really do want change and a nation unified by a can-do spirit that will confront problems and give our children a better life. They do not want patriotism defined simply by fear of terrorism, the prospect of perpetual war and the historic prejudices against race and gender.

But if the candidates are to appeal to our hopes and not our fears, it begins with their campaigns. For too long, presidential races have been marked by the Karl Rove tactics of divide and conquer. Constituencies are neatly divided and force-fed wedge issues that drive them to the polls.

A few debates are scheduled, but their format is so limited that they fail to give the candidates opportunity to fully discuss their positions. Instead of a national campaign, the races focus on raising special-interest money and the nine or ten targeted states that could make the difference in the electoral vote. The rest of the nation is taken for granted.

Let me suggest that if the candidates are really in touch with the pulse of America, they will agree to give America a different kind of presidential race.

First, they should get together and agree to public financing and the spending limits established by that law. The candidates should be focused on the issues and not the obligations of constant fundraising that consume the candidates and their campaigns.

Second, the candidates should agree to a set of Lincoln-Douglas style debates in each region of the country. These debates would not involve the press but just the candidates. Instead of the same old media questions, they would have to focus on the substantive issues facing the nation: Iraq, the war on terror, health care, global warming and energy, the economy and the deficit, immigration reform, education and foreign policy. Each forum would focus on one issue and give the candidates the opportunity to present fully their positions and to question each other. For once in a political race, the public is entitled to more than just sound bites.

Thirdly, each candidate should be required to tell the nation the names of the people he or she would have in the cabinet. The public should know the team that the next president will have in Washington. Competence and bipartisanship have been missing for too long in Washington.

And lastly, each candidate should tell the nation how he or she will restore trust in this badly divided nation’s capital and how they will rise above partisanship in order to govern. In 30 years of political life, I have never seen Washington as partisan as it is today.

It will take more than a speech. How a new president responds to this challenge could spell the difference between a successful or failed presidency.

It is likely that a new president will be tested early. The fact is we will never know what a president is really like until he or she has to confront the crises and pressures of the modern presidency. But one thing we should know before a candidate becomes president is whether he or she will govern by fear or by hope. America does not have to be afraid of its future.

LEON PANETTA, was White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration and a Central Coast congressman.  His column appears every other month in opinion. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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