We asked former Congressman Tim Penny (D-MN) to address the issues of leadership and the challenges we face moving into the 21st century. He provided us with this article in response. Tim has recently published Common Cents, written with journalist Major Garrett, which examines the cultures of Congress.

Tim is currently co-directing the Humphrey Policy Forum.

Uncertain America

As we approach the 21st century, America is an era of uncertainty not unlike that which occurred at the turn of the 20th century.

Then an industrial revolution. Now a telecommunications revolution.

Then a shift to a highly regimented workforce with an emphasis on manual labor and assembly lines. Now movement toward a less hierarchical work environment with an emphasis on technical know-how and workplace committees.

Then small companies struggling to compete with the titans of industry. Now U.S. companies struggling to compete in a world economy.

Then depopulation of our rural regions. Now depopulation of our central cities.

Then America asserting itself as a world power despite strong isolationist sentiments. Now America standing as the sole world power despite resurgent isolationist temptations.

Then voter unrest defined by the populist movement. Now voter unrest defined by the Perot movement.

Then Americans began turning to government to solve economic and social problems. Now Americans turn against government viewing it is the problem, not the solution.

Then Americans yearned for a national leader to help chart the course from an old paradigm to a new future. Now voters a similarly hungry for real leadership to help us adjust to a new paradigm.

Then the two-party system seemed incapable of responding to the need for change. Now the two party system is at its weakest level in modern times.

By stepping outside the narrow agenda of his own party, Teddy Roosevelt filled the leadership void. During his tenure, he succeeded in bringing many of the legitimate demands of the populist movement into the mainstream.

  • He championed anti-trust.
  • He advocated political reform.
  • He instituted worker protections.
  • He articulated and united the country around a set of values that he termed “Americanism.”
  • And, he asserted an American role in world affairs by increasing the size of the Navy, building the Panama Canal, and fighting for the reduction of import tariffs.

Today, Americans are searching for a leader, like Roosevelt, who can step beyond the limitations imposed by the backward-looking agendas of both major political parties.

In 1992, they were intrigued by Bill Clinton‘s talk of reinventing government, encouraged by his promise of a growth-oriented economic policy, and excited by his pledge to end “politics as usual” and gridlock. On too many issues, however, Clinton has disappointed by pursuing policies that did not reinforce his claim to be “a different kind of Democrat.” His new initiatives–national service and Goals 2000–were simply layered on top of old programs. Worse, through his repetitious veto threats, he comes across as a defender of the status quo. Many of his priorities seem rooted in the 1960s.

In 1994, Republicans were the beneficiaries of a backlash against Clinton. They promised a “Contract with America” that would reduce the size of government, provide tax relief to the middle class, and upset the political status quo. Yet after Republican domination of the agenda and the debate, voters remain disgusted with Washington. The central weakness for the Republicans is that they seem to know what they are against but not what they are for. Their ambitious assault on virtually every program created since the 1960s has included reductions in Head Start and environmental protections. Republican priorities seem rooted in the 1950s.

Both Clinton and the Republicans have failed to gain the trust of the electorate because they are locked in a debate about the past, not the future. Consequently, Americans face the turn of a new century with political leaders who seem out of touch–incapable of allaying fears about economic and social change or restoring our faith in our government and ourselves.

We Need Radical Political Reform Designed To Restore Representative Democracy

The role of special interests and money must be curtailed. Campaign reform must include a tough limit on total spending. It is an outrage that incumbent House members raise and spend on average

$650, 000 (that requires raising $1,000 per day!!!) Worse yet, most of the money goes to buy radio and television ads, a disproportionate share of which is highly negative. Given the lukewarm interest in Congress for spending caps, this issue must be driven by the contenders for the White House. Lamar Alexander is not too far afield with his simplistic slogan, “cut their pay and send them home.” Voters would have more regard for their elected leaders if Congress completed its work by July and then returned home for the balance of the year to explain the virtue of the decisions made. This reform would have the salutary effect of expanding the political dialogue beyond sound bites and opinion polls. Fundamentally, Government cannot be relevant to the electorate when politicians only visit their districts while living in Washington the year round.

We Need Leadership Willing To Tell Us The Truth, Including Some Hard Truths

In 1992, Paul Tsongas demonstrated that even within the Democratic party there were legions of voters prepared to face the truth about runaway entitlement costs and the dangers of deficit spending. Unfortunately, in 1995 too many of our party’s leaders have decided to play politics rather than discuss these issues honestly. But fearmongering is not limited to the budget or the Democrats. Pat Buchanan has fanned xenophobia by scapegoating immigrants and blaming NAFTA for all that ails our economy. Most of the Republican presidential contenders have adopted rhetoric and supported policies that are highly divisive. America cannot come together as a nation until our leaders start telling the truth and stop pitting us against one another.

We Need A New Sense Of Americanism That Is Rooted In Our Best Traditions Of Justice, Tolerance, Opportunity, Equal Rights & Shared Responsibility

In the aftermath of the O.J. trial, it is more clear than ever that faith in our criminal justice system breaks down along racial lines. We see growing evidence of hate crimes, youth gangs, and militia groups, primarily driven by racial, ethnic or religious bigotry. We need to reassert a commitment to policies that enhance the opportunity for all in our society to build a better life free from discrimination. We need to link rights with responsibilities and benefits with expectations so that America can become a community where the only entitlement is a hand-up, not a hand-out.

We Need To Offer Economic Security To American Workers In A Period Of Economic Uncertainty

Changes in the workplace and challenges from global competition have resulted in feelings of insecurity for the average worker. Many feel threatened by forces beyond their control and most lament that they have not seen improvements in their standards of living. Government policies must be growth oriented.

Our first priority must be to balance the budget over a reasonable period while retaining investments in education, training, and research. Unnecessary regulation of industry should be eliminated-this includes rethinking the FDA. The tax code should again be simplified and savings should be rewarded. Trade policies must be geared toward opening markets and reducing trade-distorting practices. To eliminate feelings of powerlessness, American workers must be given more say in the workplace through employee teams that focus on safety, productivity, quality and other issues. Flexible hours and home-based work should be implemented where feasible. The lowest paid workers deserve an increase in the minimum wage and preservation of the earned income tax credit. All workers deserve a greater sense of security by adopting policies to assure that health benefits follow a worker from job to job and that preexisting health conditions will not lead to loss of insurance. Perhaps Social Security could be transformed from a pay-as-you-go system to a government managed IRA, thereby allowing workers to build an asset to draw against in their retirement or to pass on to their children.

We Need To Focus On The Future

Every policy should be measured against a single yardstick: Is it in the best interest of our children? No theme could do more to unify the country. Too much of our federal budget is spent on middle-class entitlements (both benefits and tax breaks). Wealthy seniors accept Social Security and Medicare benefits financed by taxes on low income working families. Too few resources are available for the educational and health needs of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, our children. We must restore to our society a strong sense of obligation to posterity.

There does not appear to be another Teddy Roosevelt on the horizon. However, the country both yearns for and desperately needs a caliber of leadership beyond that being offered by the present slate of candidates. To renew our nation and our faith in ourselves, we need someone with the courage and conviction to break with party dogma and talk sense to the American people. I suggest the following five principles could serve as the defining issues for such a campaign.

  1. Political reform matched by public engagement.
  2. Fiscal responsibility tempered by social sensitivity.
  3. Personal liberty linked to community responsibility.
  4. Economic growth coupled with economic security.
  5. Intergenerational accountability focused on the needs of children.