Close Mobile Menu

Domestic: Unfinished business

December 5, 2009
by Carl M. Cannon

A new president must restore civility before government can govern.

During Dwight Eisenhower’s last years in office, one of his two top aides died; the other left Washington in disgrace. Ronald Reagan’s sixth year was mired in Iran-Contra; in their sixth years, Richard Nixon resigned and Bill Clinton was impeached.

Political scientists call it the “sixth-year curse,” or the “second-term curse” and while that may sound melodramatic, many second-term presidents have discovered that they lacked time—or political mojo—to initiate or even complete bold policy initiatives. In other words, modern political history suggests that the presidency of George W. Bush is winding down, particularly when it comes to domestic policy.

Berkeley experts agree that this does not mean that the nation’s challenges are lessening—but presidential torpor during the next two years means that today’s presidential “to do” list likely will be inherited by the incoming administration. And so the question becomes: What domestic business remains undone? And how can the gridlock that paralyzes our political system and leaves so much of the nation’s business unfinished be broken so that real problems are addressed?

A government that governs

Problem: After the defeat of President Clinton’s universal health care initiative, Harvard president Derek Bok wrote that this failure “seemed to epitomize the breakdown in government that many Americans feared.” This trend continued through the Bush years as the two major political parties carved the United States into “red” and “blue” states and acrimonious political campaigns made it difficult in Washington—and in state capitals—to come together and actually govern. The reasons for this dysfunction are legion: a great “sorting” of Democrats and Republicans into liberal and conservative parties more along the lines of the British model; and the separation of Americans into self-filtering people who worship, pay attention to marketing pitches, watch television, listen loyally to talk radio, get their news customized from like-minded sources, and live in communities of their own kind.

Politics: The two major parties treat every election as though it were Armageddon, the upshot being that candidates and their handlers will say or do nearly anything to win. Meanwhile, congressional districts are so gerrymandered that moderates in each party are squeezed out of the process and only a handful of districts are even competitive. A winner-take-all mentality in judicial appointments has eroded confidence in the courts. Members of Congress do not speak to one another, let alone socialize or, more to the point, compromise.

Solution: When he returned in 1995 for his second stint as a congressman from Northern California, moderate Republican Tom Campbell (now dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business) proposed a simple reform designed to give centrists a greater role in Congress: Have all committee members—instead of just those in the top ranks—choose their chairperson. It was a sensible suggestion, but Campbell was too far ahead of his time.

Norman Mineta, whom Campbell replaced in Congress, was asked recently as he left George W. Bush’s cabinet what he’d do if he could magically accomplish one thing to change the way politics is practiced, Mineta, who served as transportation secretary and was the only Democrat in the cabinet, responded: “Restore civility into the political quotient.”

If the 2003 recall of California Governor Gray Davis is emblematic of the problem—excessive partisanship—it also may be said that the installation of Arnold Schwarzenegger was part of the solution. Californians paradoxically view Governor Schwarzenegger as an icon but also as a citizen-politician who could govern broadly—and voters turned on him when he appeared to behave otherwise.

“One person, even in the White House, cannot unite the whole country,” says Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. “But there are people who have figured out how to reach across to the other side, to get enough of the independents and moderates in the other party to build a working coalition in the middle.”

Indeed, an inspiration for any incoming president might be the image of Schwarzenegger, a Republican, sharing the limelight with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat and co-chair of the campaign of Schwarzenegger’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, following the governor’s signing in September of the most sweeping global warming legislation in the nation—a law hailed nationally and internationally—that was co-sponsored by Nuñez.

Demonstrating the ability to govern broadly should be the key attribute of any aspiring president. But remember, then Governor George W. Bush ran for president on his ability to tame the Texas legislature. So maybe it will take a broad issue—global warming, health care, national security—to demand that the next president govern more broadly than his or her predecessors.

Health care

Problem: The cost of insurance premiums is going up. Non-generic pharmaceuticals are more expensive. Nearly 100,000 Americans die annually from preventable medical errors, and a million more are injured. The Berkeley School of Public Health reports that the pool of physicians in California is aging rapidly and that the geographic distribution of doctors leaves rural and minority communities underserved. This underscores the biggest shortcoming—the disparate nature of medical services.

Americans spend $2 trillion a year on health care, about 16 percent of the nation’s GDP. This makes it the most expensive in the world. The traditional rationalization—that it is therefore the best medical care in the world—would ring truer if everybody had comparable access to it. Today 45 million Americans lack medical coverage. This does not include illegal immigrants, who typically just show up at the emergency room door, the most expensive portal for delivering health care services.

Politics: The idea that the federal government should guarantee access to health care has been kicked around the Oval Office since Harry Truman was president. He couldn’t get it done, and neither could President Clinton, who lost not only the issue but his Democratic majority in Congress in the bargain. Key Republicans initially embraced universal coverage, but after GOP leaders concluded that inflicting a political defeat on the new president would enhance their chances of taking Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections, they opted against Clinton.

Democrats retaliated by frustrating Bush’s attempted reforms. In 2006, Senate Democrats filibustered a bill that would have capped malpractice awards, as well as a plan to let small businesses pool together to purchase health insurance for their employees.

Solution: It took a governor (naturally) to figure out what Washington hadn’t fully grasped: A disproportionate number of the uninsured are young and healthy, and must be brought into health insurance pools—for one thing, the system needs their premiums. On April 12, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney signed legislation making health insurance all but mandatory in his state. It’s estimated this law will bring almost all of Massachusetts’ 500,000 uninsured into a health plan. Vermont followed suit. Will the rest of the nation do the same? Romney hopes so, and he’s using this issue to present himself to the nation as a problem-solver. As a sign of how hungry the nation is for such a leader, Romney has vaulted into the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls for 2008.


Problem: Tourist visas are easy to manipulate, the Mexican border is a sieve, and the laws preventing employers from hiring illegal aliens are impossible to enforce.

If it weren’t for fear of terrorism, one way to look at unchecked immigration might be that it is not a problem at all. Immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Latin America, are coming north to do jobs Americans will not do, enriching our country economically and culturally. The other view is that illegals are cutting in line ahead of those trying to come legally, stretching social services, depressing wages for Americans already at the bottom economic rung, and refusing to assimilate. These two viewpoints are not mutually exclusive.

Politics: Legislation offered in 2006 by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain reflected two great realities about immigration. First, there is a market for these workers. Second, there is no practical or humane way to repatriate millions of immigrants who have been living here for years, working, marrying, raising children (and paying taxes). The Kennedy–McCain bill envisioned a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for those already in the U.S. illegally. It was endorsed by the president and passed the Senate. But the majority of House members, sensing anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment among its 2006 election year constituents, rejected the Senate approach in favor of a harsher bill, and the legislation died.

Solution: In 1986, Congress passed immigration reform that was expected to fix all this. “Future generations of Americans will be thankful,” President Reagan said as he signed it. But the law did not slow illegal immigration. By the time Reagan signed it, the national identification card envisioned by its authors was stripped out of the bill and employer sanctions were so watered down as to be meaningless. Twenty years later, about 12 million illegal immigrants could qualify for amnesty. “Next time it will be 24 million,” warned Georgia Congressman Johnny Isakson. “We will have lost control.”

It’s not possible to end illegal immigration, but three or four sensible alternatives present themselves. First, the federal government can pass the legislation it said it was passing two decades ago: a comprehensive approach including a guest worker program, a path toward citizenship for those already here, strict sanctions against employers who hire illegals, and a national ID card using advanced biometric technology.

Second, the government can rely less on fences, helicopters, and well-armed INS agents that make crossing the border so perilous. Wayne Cornelius, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, has shown that making the border harder to navigate has created a “bottleneck” on the U.S. side for migrants who previously traveled back and forth, particularly to harvest seasonal crops, but who are now more or less trapped in the U.S.

Here’s a third: Pay more attention to accommodating those who do come. In her recently released book, Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada, Berkeley sociologist Irene Bloemraad demonstrates that the dearth of U.S. policies aimed at formally integrating immigrants has resulted in lower participation in American civic life than in Canada, which has more programs and better policies.

“At a minimum,” says Bloemraad, an immigrant herself, “this requires practical assistance in learning English, help in becoming an American citizen, and bilingual and bicultural services.”

You call this protection?

Problem: Our worst terrorism nightmare is a mushroom cloud over an American city. The method by which stolen fissionable materials might arrive on our shores is anybody’s guess, but the primary fear is the porous nature of our ports, where 20,000 containers are unloaded each day. This was the worst-case scenario in the minds of the public that fueled frantic debate and the ultimate scrapping of a proposal to hire a Dubai company to administer several U.S. ports.

There are other threats, ranging from a truck bomb at a Las Vegas casino to a biological attack on a city’s water supply to the tainting of our food supply—brought home by the recent E. coli, outbreak from bagged spinach, while accidental, disturbed much of the nation nonetheless. The Department of Homeland Security has identified (in a classified report) 77,000 specific potential terrorist targets. And we’re not even mentioning those sites poorly prepared for meteorological events such as Hurricane Katrina, which also fall under DHS’s umbrella.

Politics: DHS was created five years ago to consolidate 184,000 employees representing 22 agencies with a budget of more than $40 billion. The department was initially criticized for becoming an open pork barrel, with federal dollars and equipment being steered to agencies in places far down the list of the most at risk. Still the butt of jokes about governmental dysfunction, DHS continues to be a lightning rod of political contention. Even in its infancy, this political hot spot needs both administrative and political reform. Because the secretary reports directly to the White House, here is where an incoming president must exercise his or her immediate political muscle, because here is where the immediate stakes may be the highest.

Solution: When he was part of the Bush administration, Boalt Hall law professor John Yoo drafted a legal brief urging streamlining of the way our government obtains information to protect itself. The solution, he suggested, was giving the president the power to lift the Geneva Convention protections afforded soldiers—because they do not apply to terrorists—thus legitimizing the use of torture. This raised several issues—from the efficacy of torture to moral indignation—and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against such a blanket power. Furthermore, experts including legendary Marine Corps interrogator Sherwood Moran, who wrote a 1943 manual about it, insist that torture does not work. Others, including Yoo, insist coercion has yielded valuable information that has helped shield us from further attacks.

In fact, what will keep us safe?

The first answer, according to Harold Smith, a former assistant to the Secretary of Defense and a visiting scholar at the Goldman School of Public Policy, is to take the moral high ground. We may or may not agree with Professor Yoo’s observation that we are in a hot new war, but whether we are or not, we cannot defeat barbarism by barbaric means. Torture must be dismissed and the Geneva Convention enshrined—not spurned.

A second answer is what Franklin Roosevelt called “American ingenuity.” Today we call it technology. Well-engineered electronic implements ranging from camera-equipped drones to eavesdropping devices, surveillance, and analytical tools are as sophisticated as anything Silicon Valley or our campus labs can produce. “Furthermore, anticipation and preparation are of value in and of themselves, but they also add deterrence to the equation. One does not want to attack a prepared enemy, whether he is an infidel or not,” Smith suggests. For example, Berkeley scientists recently received a $1 million federal grant to study potential treatments for injuries that would result from radiation-contaminated dirty bombs. However, these are only tools, and many of them would come into play only after an attack—which would involve thousands of casualties.

A more practical answer, suggests Steven Weber, who heads Berkeley’s Institute for International Studies, is a mixture of technology with “feet on the ground”—something the U.S. discovered it lacked particularly with regard to infiltrating disparate Islamic militants—that must be reinvigorated. Whether it is being done or how it is being done should be (understandably) classified. But it must be done at the direction of the president and with newfound coordination among disparate agencies such as the DHS, the CIA, and the FBI. As a prerequisite, all three agencies must be managed integrally and proactively with the State Department, because diplomacy must clear the way for our intelligence to cross borders, even clandestinely.

The best protector is our ability to process the information we receive. Our data-crunching capabilities are as potent as our surveillance tools for obtaining intelligence. But personnel proficient in monitoring them—with the right educational, language, and cultural wherewithal—must be recruited in far greater numbers than exist today. The new president must articulate honestly and clearly the exigencies of this new war to inspire and help recruit our new terror fighters. It is almost a throwback to suggest that joining DHS or one of the intelligence agencies—whether CIA, FBI, NSA, and two handfuls more—should once again become attractive and honorable for our best and brightest and a bulwark of our nation’s security.

Energy sufficiency and efficiency

Problem: What if Americans could, by kicking their fossil fuel habit, address air pollution, the huge trade imbalance, a primary source of terrorists’ funds, global warming, and the protection of threatened coastal ecosystems from the Louisiana bayou to the Arctic wilderness?

Politics: When this problem is finally addressed at a national level—and it is now finally more than a distant blip on the radar—Americans might look back and wonder why such an obvious truth was not addressed sooner. Mileage standards for cars haven’t been increased in 16 years, no nuclear power plant has been approved for construction for a generation, and it took the executive branch of the federal government all eight years of the Clinton administration and the first six years of the Bush administration to obey a congressional mandate to propose new electricity distribution transformer standards. When they were finally proposed, the levels of conservation chosen were minimal, wasteful, and made little economic sense—still allowing 12 billion kilowatt hours per year to evaporate. This is the product of the influence that oil-patch Republicans, led by President Bush, and Rust Belt Democrats have exerted on the two major parties. But so-called “green” politicians are seizing the future—with California leading the way.

Solution: A Berkeley study delivered to the state legislature in August found that returning greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 could boost the state’s annual gross product by $60 billion and create 17,000 new jobs. Further, the study envisioned an even larger gain—$74 billion and 89,000 new jobs by 2020 if a critical number of California companies invest in new technology to save energy and cap greenhouse gases. “Climate action can be profitable,” said David Roland-Holst, Berkeley adjunct professor of agriculture and resource economics, author of the report. The governor and legislature took heed, enacting a law committing the state to cutting greenhouse emissions by 25 percent over the next 14 years. This year the state filed suit against the Big Six carmakers and fought against offshore oil drilling—in Florida—just to make sure nobody in Washington gets the idea that California will tolerate new rigs off its coast. While Bush talked about not-yet-invented hydrogen cars, Schwarzenegger appropriated grant money for studying the creation of a hydrogen highway. “We don’t wait for the federal government to take the leadership position,” Schwarzenegger said in September while touring a new fuel cell company in Silicon Valley with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in tow. “We take the lead.”

Smartening up America

Problem: The U.S. Department of Education was created when Jimmy Carter kept a 1976 campaign promise to the teachers’ unions. Four years later, candidate Ronald Reagan vowed to abolish the department. As president, Reagan increased federal support for education, and the federal share of education spending has increased with every succeeding administration. Today, some $37 billion in federal dollars is spent on kindergarten through 12th-grade education. That’s only 8.3 percent of the total, but as they say in Washington, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money”—so federal lawmakers are demanding some bang for those bucks. In one of the few bipartisan initiatives of the Bush era, the No Child Left Behind Act, Washington made big noises in telling the states: If you want this money, prove you are educating the children who are needy, not just those who are well-off.

Politics: Some school districts have decided that the federal strings are not worth the money, but some reformers wonder ruefully about what might have been if a different president had decried “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” In today’s polarized environment, Bush gets little credit for increasing education spending by 58 percent in his first term.

Today, Democrats are more likely to complain that Bush’s signature domestic policy needs even more money to be equitably implemented and, because of its standardized testing requirements, places far too much pressure on local districts to “teach to the test.” Moreover, a recently released Berkeley study shows that many states provide erratic, exaggerated reports of achievements to qualify for funds.

Solution: More, not less, accountability is one answer. So is ensuring that classrooms are staffed by quality teachers. That’s the most important reform of all, in the view of P. David Pearson, dean of the UC Graduate School of Education. His complaint about NCLB is that it doesn’t go far enough in this regard.

“I think there are lots of other things that need to be in place, too, such as (a) libraries and media centers filled with a dazzling array of exciting, relevant materials; (b) a curriculum in which teaching reading and writing happens in all the subject areas; and (c) specialists to provide small group and one-on-one assistance to those students who need a little extra help to accelerate their learning,” Pearson wrote in an e-mail. “But at the top of the list is a qualified and committed teaching staff for every poor urban school.”

Federal mandates are one way of getting there. Another is opening the public schools to competition. Once again, a Californian is showing the way—in Washington. For a glimpse at the future of education, all any member of Congress need do is walk east from the House office building to the Capitol Hill campus of the César Chávez Public Charter School For Public Policy. There, they could buttonhole school founder Irasema Salcido and inquire about her life story. Salcido came to the United States from Mexico at age 14, knowing no English. She graduated from Cal State Fullerton, earned her master’s at Harvard, and learned the ropes in the District’s school system before launching her school in 1998, naming it after her hero.

Last year, she opened another campus. In a new school staffed by highly motivated idealists, Salcido told the enthusiastic students and parents jammed into the gym: “Every child in America should have access to a facility like this.”

The aging of America

Problem: A Census Report released earlier this year estimated that by 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 or older. It’s close to 12 percent today. Like the immigration boom, the demographic explosion is not necessarily a crisis.

A Pew Research organization study released in September showed that 77 percent of today’s workers say they intend to remain in the workforce after they reach retirement age—and that by a 2-1 margin, these workers say they want to do so out of desire, not necessity. It’s a good thing because retiring itself is going to become problematic. Excepting government employment, traditional pensions are going the way of the passenger pigeon. In the private sector, huge and well-known corporations have underfunded their health and retirement plans. The government-created Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which is supposed to assure that these plans fulfill their obligations, is itself underfunded. That’s no surprise, because the dollar amount of the obligations the federal government itself has promised is unsustainable. When Congress passed President Bush’s Medicare drug benefit, for instance, it added an estimated $1.2 trillion to the federal budget over the next ten years—for that component of Medicare alone.

“The numbers for the total amount of obligations the federal budget has incurred are simply staggering,” says Haas’s Tom Campbell. “It’s as if no one in the government has ever focused on what they’ve signed up for.”

Politics: The politician who messes with a hair on FDR’s head is risking oblivion. Ronald Reagan was able to pull it off, but only did so by appointing a bipartisan commission that recommended gradual changes to Social Security. Reagan’s fix worked for two decades, and Bush is right that another fix is needed. But his strategy—scaring the electorate, partially privatizing the program, and trying to ram a partisan bill through Congress—is not the way the federal government should work.

Solution: Eventually, Social Security’s cost-of-living increases will have to be cut, the retirement age raised again, the contributions kicked up—and expecting Congress to prescribe that sour elixir before it’s absolutely necessary is probably asking too much. In the meantime, Tom Campbell is asked: How can the private sector do its part? “Err on the side of overfunding pensions, retirement plans, and health obligations,” he replies. “Stay solvent!”

Carl M. Cannon has reported on national politics for the past 20 years, first for Knight-Rider newspapers, the Baltimore Sun, and currently for the National Journal magazine. He has been president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for reporting on the presidency.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

Share this article