Thursday, November 2, 2006
Since talking to Leon Panetta last week, I have been feeling nostalgic for a time I didn’t much care for. Surrounded by the noise and nonsense of this election season’s crescendo, I imagine the very different political world that Panetta once knew, which he described in our conversation. I find myself wishing for that world.
Panetta spoke of a political scene that was marked by civility and a commitment to the common good, of lawmakers who were willing to compromise and work together to get things done, of politics as a means to an end, and governing as an honored art.
To hear him tell it, the fundamental rules of that game have changed. In the Washington that Panetta remembers, politicians took seriously the ritualized processes of governance. Bills moved through committees where they were marked-up and amended. Arguments were aired in floor debates and the bills were amended some more. Bones were thrown to members of the minority, in recognition of the fact that they were, after all, elected representatives.
If this stuff sounds quaint and naïve, well that’s how far we’ve come. Over the last six years, top-down brute force has taken the place of dialogue and debate. The ruling party has ruled with arrogant disregard for the minority; this has resulted in bad policy and—perhaps worse—it has sullied the institutions of government. But that’s my analysis—not Leon’s.
In our conversation, Panetta (typically) declined to heap blame on the Republicans. He spoke instead of a bipartisan political war “in which both parties have been locked into trenches, throwing grenades at one another.” He decried “the inability of either party to be able to come out and to find a kind of consensus and compromise.” When I suggested that this has been a one-sided fight—that the national Republican leadership has moved far to the right, while the Democrats have not moved an inch to the left—he would not take the bait.
Leon Panetta is not a partisan warrior—never has been. He was, after all, a Republican when he entered politics. In Congress, he famously worked both sides of the aisle. And then he went to work for a centrist president—the former head of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. Panetta was always profoundly moderate in his approach, both as a politician and as a lawmaker. This drew criticism from some members of his own party.
In his book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, Bob Woodward reports that Clinton advisor Paul Begala did not, at first, trust the tight-fisted economic conservative Panetta, who had been tagged by the president to head the Office of Management and Budget.
“Begala felt that of all 435 congressional districts, Panetta’s was least representative of America—the pure, elitist, unreal world of California dreaming,” Woodward writes. “Panetta seemed to love talking about nothing more than deficit reduction. In private, Begala began applying a new label to the budget director: ‘The Poster Boy for Economic Constipation.’”
As it happened, Panetta prevailed. Occasionally working with Republicans in Congress and against some members of his own party, Panetta helped Clinton pass a balanced budget—the first time that feat had been accomplished in almost 30 years. Pretty much everyone today agrees that turned out to be a smart thing to do.
Hard to believe it was only 10 years ago that such a bipartisan victory was possible.
• • •
Think about these times that Panetta recalls so fondly. He began his political career in 1966—for many Americans, an era of dramatic conflict. When he took his first big job in 1970, as director of the Office for Civil Rights, Richard Nixon was president. Panetta was forced to quit that job because he was too diligent about enforcing the laws he was charged to uphold.
It was a tumultuous beginning for a devout moderate. And, after a few years back home working as a lawyer, Panetta returned to DC, where he served in Congress through the Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies before joining the Clinton administration. Soon after Panetta left the government in 1997, the president was engulfed in the controversy that led to his impeachment.
These, then, were the good old days.
Rarely during the past 30 years have I felt especially sanguine about the national political situation. Rarely during that time could I have believed that I would one day look fondly back, passionately hoping for things like compromise and moderation. That’s how far I have come.
I am not excessively hopeful that next Tuesday’s election will herald the dawn of a golden age. I just hope that the political situation gets a bit less bleak.