We Need Real Change, Not Campaign Talk

The Monterey County Herald, January 13, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta
If there is one word that has become synonymous with the 2008 presidential election, it is “change.”

There is not a candidate, Republican or Democrat, who has not used and sometimes overused change as part of his or her campaign stump speech.

John Edwards is said to have used it nine times in one speech, Mitt Romney 24 times.

Of course, no one has used it more effectively or persuasively than Barack Obama. His name, race and background are the essence of change. He has captured the public’s discontent with Washington’s divided politics, the political gridlock, the tired policies of the past with these stirring words that are usually part of every speech – “We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”

As a result, there is little question that he has become a formidable candidate.

To some extent, the Mike Huckabee phenomenon is based on the same frustration with current politics. He understands better than other Republican candidates the crisis of authority in this country. People have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to respond to crisis. Huckabee understands the middle-class anxiety and is not afraid to criticize the Bush administration on foreign policy. His approach is certainly changing Republican politics.

Can these candidates for change ultimately win? This is a long campaign, and more will be needed than just a word. Perhaps if they can buttress their uplifting sermons with some tough and realistic policy positions, they can convince voters that they have good judgment to go along with inspiration.

And just maybe, if they win, they could become real agents of change within the next two to four years.

But can we – can America – afford to wait that long for change? My concern is that while candidates can use the word “change” as a way to attract voters, it can become an excuse for current leaders to avoid the tough decisions that must be made now. The failure to deal with the crises of the present could make change in the future that much more difficult, no matter who becomes president.

Frankly, both President Bush and the Democratic Congress have done a lousy job producing the kind of change that we needed to solve problems in 2007. Both wound up the year blaming each other for why so little got done.

Here in California, the state faces a similar dilemma. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a financial emergency because of a potential $14 billion deficit. Neither the governor nor the Legislature have been willing to fundamentally change fiscal policy.

Republicans refuse to consider new revenues. Democrats refuse to impose serious spending restraints. Both have engaged in the same budget games and increased state borrowing. How can a state in deep deficit possibly afford education or health care reform without changing the way business is done in Sacramento?

As we enter 2008, the problems the nation now faces will only get worse unless there is more than a rhetorical commitment to change.

The economy is on the edge of a possible recession. The collapsing housing market, the subprime fallout, rising unemployment, record gas prices and a weak dollar are seriously threatening the health of the economy. There is now talk by the president and the Congress of a possible stimulus package.

But they are repeating the same old policies. The president wants to cut taxes or make the present tax cut permanent, and Congress is talking about more spending. This at a time when the nation is facing record deficits and a $9 trillion national debt. The history of past stimulus packages is not very good. If they do pass, they usually come too late, add to inflation and complicate recovery.

If our elected leaders are serious, action is required within the first two months of the new year with a very targeted package of immediate tax breaks and public works projects. That kind of expedited bipartisan package would be a sign of real change in Washington.

Iraq remains a continuing concern. Although the “surge” has helped reduce the violence, particularly around Baghdad, ultimate success still depends on whether the Iraqis can govern, defend and sustain themselves as a nation.

None of the important political reforms have been enacted, and the level of violence in Mosul and northern Iraq is increasing. Again, both the president and Congress have failed to change their approach and refuse to work together to define a common set of goals and strategies for success in Iraq. That paralysis will make it that much more difficult for a future president to change the course of this war.

Immigration is another crisis in which candidates are promising change, but current party leaders have decided to virtually ignore any solution this year. For a nation of immigrants to fail to address this now is a disgrace. The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform will only inflame the demagogues of fear and hate. We know what has to be changed. What is needed is the courage to change.

Whether the issue is health care for children, education reform, Social Security, Medicare or the deficit, we know the tough choices needed to solve these issues. But change only happens if leaders are willing to work together, compromise their differences, find consensus and cut a deal. That kind of leadership would be a very welcome change.

The reason change is such a powerful force in this election is that the American people are desperate for action that will address the problems facing the nation. In many ways, change is at the very heart of our democracy. Under our Constitution, people have the power to elect new leaders and endorse new policies. Our hope for the future is embodied in our capacity to produce change. That is the difference between a free society and a tyranny.

But change can also be a paradox – a contradiction – and that explains why it is so difficult to achieve. On the one hand, the promise for change is an emotional lift – the good feeling that finally someone is speaking to the best in all of us, that we have the opportunity to make something better for the future. On the other hand, real change has to be substantive and can create an impact on the way people behave. It can be upsetting, unsettling and even unpopular. The test of every great leader is not just to promise change but to deliver change. That takes the courage to fight for consensus and take the risks necessary for leadership. Governing must be more important than winning.

Change cannot be just a rallying cry. It has to be the standard by which we govern a nation. That is why it cannot wait for some future president. We have to hold our present leaders accountable to produce change now. If we do not, future leaders – no matter how dynamic or well-meaning – will believe that they too can ultimately escape responsibility for failing to deliver on their promise for change.

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.


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