MotherJones SO93: Leon lays it on the line

Lest readers of the following think MoJo has gone soft on politicians, we admit that we went soft on Leon E. Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, twelve years ago. At the time, we shared a cab on Capitol Hill with a stranger who wanted to know all about MoJo and gave us tips on how to report on the Hill. As he was leaving we asked what he did for a living. "Oh, I'm a congressman," he said. Over the years, Panetta has maintained the same self-effacing profile, yet he's always been accessible and honest (as he was last spring, when his bleak comments on Clinton's budget and NAFTA made headlines).

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Q: Still have moments of doubt?

A: Oh, hell, this is a roller coaster every day. You've just got to make sure you're there for the ride and keep your eye on the goal.

One of the greatest frustrations in the public mind is that government doesn't work for them, it doesn't care. I find that challenge exciting--to restore the credibility of government.

Q: Is the press too hasty to push the panic button?

A: That's a real problem. We're in a pattern where the smallest failing becomes big news for that day, undermining attempts to grapple with bigger issues.

Q: Do you think the American public has been programmed to expect instant gratification?

A: Yes. It's the toughest legacy from the 1980s. People assume that they don't have to be a part of society, they don't have to give something back to the nation. Turning that around is probably the most important thing this country has to do.

Q: The Reagan administration's David Stockman admitted midway through his OMB tenure that his supply-side, "trickle-down" economics were rubbish. Why should people believe that you're not as cynical?

A: Like every politician, I've got to be tested in terms of what I say and what I really do. In the eighties, Reagan and Stockman and others promised us Valhalla, where you could cut taxes and increase defense spending and balance the budget all at the same time. Nobody's kidding anybody now. What we're saying to the American people is straight: we've got to cut benefits and raise taxes, particularly on the wealthy.

Q: As a budget hawk, how do you respond to the notion that the economy can't grow by raising taxes and cutting incentives for business simultaneously? Do you fear what happened to Hoover--whose tax plan to cut the deficit helped create the Great Depression?

A: Let me put it this way: the biggest problem we face is the most regressive tax of all--the $4.4 trillion debt. We've never had this size debt. It quadrupled under Reagan-Bush, contrary to their promises. It is undermining not only interest stability in this country but investment capital. And more important, it's robbing us of our resources to deal with needs within our own society.

Q: Elaborate on your goal of campaign-finance reform.

A: Since I was first elected to Congress, I've supported public financing for representatives as well as senators. It's the only effective way to move away from special interests and PACs and return the electoral process to the public. Then candidates will have to talk about real issues rather than spending most of their time talking to special interests about how they can raise money.

Q: Is the progressive movement dead?

A: Not at all. A lot of what progressives talk about needs to be addressed. We spent twelve years ignoring people in need in this country. We've got to pay more attention to investments in people if we're going to be strong for the future.

We've spent a lot of money on defense in fighting the Cold War. Since the war is over, we now have a real responsibility to change priorities and redirect some of that [money] toward our own country. That we should continue to fight the Cold War, when the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore, is just looking for the bogeyman that has always kept the defense budget growing.

Q: Do progressives have a friend in the Clinton administration?

A. I think they've got a real friend. All of us recognize that unless we start caring about each other, America is not going to be strong as a society. That's reality. There's been a lot of talk about families, the what-is-the-American-family issue. We have to look at a broader definition of family, that all of us are part of the American family and all of us have to pull together.

Q: Final question: Who's the budget director at home?

A: [laughs] Actually, my wife and I both do that. We work pretty closely together in that regard.

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