Ed Rendell Still Thinks We’re a Nation of Wusses

In an excerpt from his spirited new memoir, A Nation of Wusses, the former DA, mayor and governor dishes on the cheesesteak that changed his career, his buddy Bill Clinton, and why exactly the U.S. seems to be losing its mojo.

How to Stop Wussing Out

I believe our country is heading in the wrong direction at an ever-increasing rate of speed. To use the entertainment vernacular, we’ve lost our mojo! Everyone talks about “American exceptionalism,” and it has driven us for 236 years. It has set us apart from all other countries. It was our sense that we were different from everybody else. You didn’t do it by inheritance here; you had to earn it through your own hard work, talent and dedication. We all were free to dream of things that never were—as Robert Kennedy said so eloquently—and ask why not. And that freedom was encompassed in a pioneer spirit that convinced us there was nothing we couldn’t do, no challenge too tough for us, no hurdle too high for us to get over. That spirit led us to be the ultimate risk-takers, who invented new things and dreamed up new idea after new idea.

That spirit, that sense of no limits, appears to be gone, swallowed up by a fear of risk-taking. There don’t appear to be too many candidates for a future Profiles in Courage who could turn things around. Our problems mount, and there don’t seem to be enough people willing to take on risk to begin the process of addressing them.

I had real hope that the Congressional “super committee” that was formed after last summer’s debt-ceiling crisis would decide our economy was in such bad shape that its members all needed to take a chance, compromise their rigid ideological positions, and create an agreement that reduced the deficit by $4 trillion or $5 trillion—far more than the $1.2 trillion they were charged to. If they had, I believe it would have created an electricity in the American economy, which had expected the worst, and that would have spurred renewed confidence and renewed growth. When the committee basically gave up and started blaming each other, the thud could be heard around the world.

Sadly, it appears inevitable that nothing meaningful will get done during the rest of this election year—on jobs, infrastructure or our exploding deficit. The consequences of this inaction are great. To the laid-off teacher­ or police officer, to the idle construction or factory worker, to the millions of other Americans who are desperately seeking work to help them feed and care for their families, this delay until after the election is unconscionable. They are at a loss to comprehend why our elected officials are so scared of doing anything that might anger anyone in this election year, why Washington is totally paralyzed, a city run amok with wusses. And it isn’t just the inaction, the failure to address our problems, that’s vexing—it’s the pace of our delay. The revered Ronald Reagan said it best: “The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.”

I believe there is a new D-day coming, and that it will arrive early in 2013. Regardless of who wins the election, crucial decisions will have to be made. We are likely to have a divided government again, with both parties having some measure of control, but even if one party were to sweep the presidency, Senate and House, the filibuster rule in the Senate (requiring 60 votes to pass anything) mandates that a bipartisan approach is required to deal honestly and courageously with our problems. We will need to confront our deficit, and doing so will mean that both sides must show courage and take a political hit—the Democrats on entitlement cuts, and the Republicans on raising revenues. We will have to begin to address our infrastructure needs and pass a robust, comprehensive six-year transportation bill to make us economically competitive again. We will need to stop importing everything and figure out a way to make things ourselves. We are going to have to find a way to once again invest in education, research and innovation. We must create a plan for true energy independence for our nation, one that uses all of our natural resources wisely and well.

Can we do it, or have we become so wussified that we lack the will to take the risks necessary to create real solutions? I still believe that we can do it.

We will need all of the above and more if we are to turn this country around. We also will need presidential leadership. My hope is that President Obama, if he is re-elected and is free from the burden of seeking office again, will consistently be as bold and courageous a risk-taker as he was in refusing to accept defeat on health care.

If we get that leadership from the top, if the risk-takers prevail in Congress, maybe we will be able to say that American exceptionalism is back, and we are wusses no more!

As for running for office again, that simply isn’t in my future. After having held three executive elected offices, I wouldn’t be content as a legislator. When I make a decision, I want it to lead to immediate action. That happened often when I was D.A., mayor and governor. That would never happen if I were a senator. I would miss the action, and, besides, senators don’t do much.

Whatever happens in the future, I have loved the opportunity I have been given to serve. In the 43 years I have worked since graduating from law school, I have never made anything our society would call “real money,” and I haven’t missed it for a moment. Each day I have gotten up knowing that I’m using my talent and energy to make people’s lives better. It’s an incredible feeling that makes up for a lot. Would I do it over again? You bet!