THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE PLENARY SESSION
Hilton Hotel and Towers Washington, D.C.
12:50 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: You remember what Mark Twain said: The reports of our demise are premature. (Applause.) I could have listened to Al Gore talk all day about that. (Laughter.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: You thought you might have to. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Do you know what he said? He said, for a while you thought you might have to. (Laughter.) He was waxing eloquent, you know. He kept saying all that stuff, and I thought, well, why didn't we win last November? (Laughter.) I've got some ideas about that, too, I'll share in a moment.
Let me begin by thanking all these people who are here on the head table, and all of you. It is wonderful, wonderful to see you, and to see you in good spirits and with a strong heart. (Applause.) And let me also say a special word of thanks to Don Fowler and to Chris Dodd.
I need one of those Don Fowler stickers. I've known Don Fowler since 1972. You think we're in trouble now, you should have been there then. (Laughter.) And I owe Don Fowler a lot. I mean, he ran that convention in '88. He wrote the speech I gave in 1988. (Laughter and applause.) I was supposed to talk about the future here today, but instead I decided to finish that speech -- (laughter) -- so you all relax and I will. (Laughter and applause.) I wish you hadn't laughed so hard at that. (Laughter.)
I want to thank Chris Dodd, who has been my friend for a long time, almost that long. I've known him about 15 years now. And I remember when we were young men in public life back in 1980 when I went to the Democratic Convention in Connecticut to give the keynote speech and he was about to go to the Senate. And I have watched him, and I wanted him to do this job because I don't think our country has a stronger voice of the values, the ideas of the Democratic Party, and because he's not afraid to fight. (Applause.)
I wanted Don Fowler because I thought we ought to have somebody in the leadership who does not have an accent -- (laughter) -- and because, whether the South knows it or not, we're a lot better for most of them than the other guys are. (Applause.)
So I feel very good about this team. I thank Debbie DeLee for all of her work and for her leadership. I thank David Wilhelm in his absence.
David and Dee Gee brought young Luke by to see me yesterday. And I sat him on the desk in the Oval Office. And they're already saving up for the inaugural gown for when Luke's inaugurated in 40 or 50 years. (Laughter.)
I'd like to say a special word of thanks, too, and honor, in homage -- I know there is something on the program about this later, but I'd like to tell you all personally how sad I am about the passing of John White, and how much I appreciate him. He was the cochairman of our campaign in 1972 in Texas, and I've known him a very long time. He was a great Democrat, a great leader for our party. And I know all of you join me in wishing his wife, Nellie, well and in thanking him from the bottom of our hearts for being such a loyal and effective leader for our party for so very long. (Applause.)
You know, I was listening to the Vice President talk -- I say first I need to thank all three of them who spoke. I thank Tipper Gore for being basically, on many occasions, the continuing spark plug of our team, for fighting for the rights and the interests of people who need better mental health opportunities in this country. I do believe that Al Gore will go down in history as the most effective Vice President in the history of the Republic, and the person who has exercised the most responsibility. (Applause.)
And I want to say this to my wife. I never really thought when we started this she would become quite the target she has been. It's funny, when we lived in Arkansas, which is supposed to be more conservative and traditional than the country as a whole, most people thought it was a pretty good thing when the Governor's wife tried to get kids in education or make sure they didn't go to bed sick at night, if it could be helped. And I'll tell you something else -- (applause.) I'd like to say something else. When I look at her at night I think there's a lot worse things that could happen to you in life than to get caught red-handed trying to give health care to 40 million Americans who don't have it. (Applause.)
I come here today in a curious role -- as the leader of the party I love, but also as the President of the country that includes both Democrats and Republicans, a fair number of people that don't think either party amounts to much and just kind of go with the flow of election after election.
I do regret, in all candor, that any administration that could have done as much as we have done, and any group of members of Congress that could have supported that, did not find greater favor in the election of November. And I thought, well, maybe there's a lot of reasons for this. There are, objectively, a lot of reasons. First of all, it takes a while for the laws you pass to be actually felt in the lives of people. And secondly, there are all kinds of reasons today why it's hard to get good news out; and it's almost harder if there's more of it. And thirdly, there are a lot of people in this country today who, in the midst of this great recovery, don't feel more secure. And they really don't; and they're our friends and we are their friends, but they may not have known it in the last election, given what they had to listen to.
But the truth is that a whole bunch of folks in America, even in spite of the fact that we've got over 5.5 million new jobs in the last two years, are working harder for less money than they had 15 years ago. Their wages have not kept up with inflation. Another 1.1. million Americans lost their health care last year, and they were in working families. They were not people on welfare.
I just signed a bill a few days ago, we celebrated it this week, to try to stabilize the pensions of 40 million Americans who depend upon the government guarantee system and who were in danger of being let down -- 8.5 million of them were in trouble on their pensions. People know that.
More and more workers feel like they're just sort of dispensable products that can be thrown away in this new rapidly changing global economy. And they feel great anxiety. And not all the problems of this country are economic. A lot of people feel insecure on their streets. And they don't like what they see happening to our families and our communities. And they're vulnerable to the siren song they heard in the last election: promise them anything; tell them what they want to hear; tell them the government is their enemy.
But let me tell you something else right on the front end, folks. When people say change is hard and you have to be strong and you have to be willing to take on popular positions, that isn't just rhetoric, that's true. I used to carry a bunch of -- about nine rules of politics around in my billfold when I was Governor -- Clinton's Rules of Politics. And one of them was, everybody is for change in general, but against it in particular. (Laughter.)
I remember a story our junior senator David Pryor told me one time about going to a birthday party for a guy who turned 100. And he said to this guy who had just passed a century of life -- he said, you know, it's remarkable, you have all your faculties about you. You can really -- you speak clearly, you hear me when I speak to you. He said, yeah. And he said, you're thinking just right. He said, that's right. He said, you must have seen an amazing number of changes in your lifetime. He said, yes, son, and I was agin every one of them. (Laughter.)
And that's what I see sometimes -- you think about it. (Laughter.) The last time we had a period of really profound change like this was at the end of the second world war. We had a president named Harry Truman. He had an 80-percent approval rating on the day that he dropped the bomb on Japan. Two years later, when he sent national health insurance to the Congress for the second time, and he'd gone through two years of reverse plastic surgery from the organized interest groups pounding against change, he was at 36 percent approval. But he fought for change because it was necessary. And he reached out and worked with the Republicans when he could to build a structure for the post-Cold War world. He did what was right, and eventually, they were able to get it across.
So I say to you, the number one lesson is not to be cynical, not to give up, not to turn back, but to bear down and go forward and do what is right by the American people. It will come out all right in the end if we stand up for what is right and do what is right. (Applause.)
You know, I have been very interested in what the new Republican leaders in Congress have said in the last few days. The Speaker quoting Franklin Roosevelt at length, has basically said, well, the Democrats did do almost every good thing that was done in the 20th century. Give them back, but in the Information Age, they're irrelevant. We thank them. They did a good job, give them a gold watch and send them home. And put us in in the Information Age. Because in the Information Age, well, government is just intrinsically a part of the problem. It is intrinsically bad. And those Democrats, they think there's a program for every problem. They think government can solve the problems. They are wrong; they are irrelevant. Throw them away.
It's a funny world, that world they're sketching -- a world in which Big Bird is an elitist and right-wing media magnates are populists. (Laughter.) It's an interesting world. (Applause.) I'm still trying to get it, but I'm working at it real hard. (Laughter.)
But I say to you, my friends, we have an obligation that is more than contesting the other party -- and certainly I do. I do not believe there is a program for every problem in the Information Age. I do not believe government can solve all the problems. But I do not believe that government is inherently bad. Our founders created government at a time of limited government. And I still think what they said it was for is the best statement we could ever make: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And government was instituted to help the American people pursue those ends. That is what I believe. (Applause.)
And, you know, in times of sweeping change, times of great uprooting, times which are uncertain and insecure for people, it is more important than ever that we work hard not only to do the right specific things, but to define that; to say what we believe. So will we have a different form of government in the 21st century? You bet we will. And will it be less bureaucratic and more entrepreneurial and more creative? You bet; it must be. But does it still need to be on the side of average Americans to help empower them, to give them the tools, to give them the means so that they can survive and do well and have the American Dream in their own lives and rid themselves of this gripping insecurity that still dominates the lives of so many American families? I say, yes, that is our job. (Applause.)
And so I challenge the leaders of the other party: You won a piece of responsibility; exercise it. Stop the politics of demonization and division and let's think about exercising joint responsibility. You say you want to restrain government spending; so do I. Without help from them, we took $11,000 in debt off of every family in this country. We reduced the size of government, as the Vice President said. We have begun to reinvent it to make it work. Nobody looks the other way now when there's an emergency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency comes, like they did when the Republicans were in power. They now say, bring them on; they're our friends, they're our helpers; they get things done.
When California had their terrible earthquake, we got that highway rebuilt in about half the time -- the busiest highway in America --- they said they could do. If you go into the Small Business Administration now, you can fill out a one-page form for a loan, get an answer in three days. You don't have to wait months, after going through page after page.
I talked to university administrator after university administrator who tells me that they are saving weeks of time now in college loan applications because they like our new college loan program -- our direct loan program that cuts costs to the taxpayers and cuts costs to the students and gives people a better way to pay back their college loans and cut out bureaucracy. They say they want to help us. I say, come on; we need the help; we'd like to have some support; we've been carrying this burden for two years -- reducing the government, reducing the bureaucracy, making it better; we would like to have a partner; you are welcome; let's go, let's talk about positive ideas for our future. (Applause.)
They say we have to do something about immigration. They're right -- there are too many illegal immigrants in America. But we have increased the number of border guards. We have accelerated the deportation of people convicted of crimes. We have faced these problems after they were ignored by the people who were here before. If they want to help in a responsible and fair way, I say, come on.
They say they're for welfare reform. Well, in the last two years, we gave 24 states permission to get around federal rules and regulations to find new ways to put people to work, to give them a chance in life. So I say, okay, come on; help.
They say they want to be tough on crime. Most of them voted against the crime bill that put 100,000 police on the street, passed three strikes and you're out, gave our people some prevention programs and law enforcement community leaders to give kids something to say yes to and a better future. But we want help in these areas, and I say, come on.
They say they want to give tax relief to working people. So do we. In the last two years, as the Vice President said, we not only made 90 percent of the small businesses eligible for tax cuts, but for working families under $26,000, their taxes this year will be, on the average, $1,000 less than it would have been if this administration had never come to office. That's under the laws that are already there. So let's look at what we can do.
But let's look at what we should not do. In the last two years, a lot of the important things we did were opposed by somewhere between a majority and 100 percent of the members of the other party. Now they're in the majority. But I don't think we should repeal the Family Leave Law. I don't think we should repeal the tax cuts for working families on low income to keep them off welfare. (Applause.) I don't think we should repeal the Brady Bill. And I don't think we should repeal -- (applause.) I know it may have cost us the House of Representatives, and most people who studied it closely believe it did -- I don't believe we should repeal the assault weapons. You don't need them. (Applause.)
I'm not sure about this; you may need assault weapons to hunt giraffes, but you can go with ducks just fine with an ordinary shotgun. (Laughter.)
This is a serious thing. Policemen lay down their lives every day in this country because of the upsurge in assault weapons. Talk to people who run the emergency rooms of our hospitals about the increasing mortality rate of people with gunshot wounds, and you know what they'll tell you -- it's happening because there's more bullets in people's bodies who are shot with guns on average than they're used to be. A lot of good Democrats laid down their careers to give our children a chance to stay alive on the street, give our police officers a chance to stay alive while they do their duty. We must not go back on that. (Applause.)
I'll tell you something else. We shouldn't repeal the law that will make it possible to immunize all the kids in this country against serious diseases who are under two years old. We shouldn't repeal the national service law. We should not do that. (Applause.)
Do you know on Martin Luther King's birthday, those national service volunteers were building houses in Atlanta, repairing tattered housing in Chicago, and helping people fight the floods in California. And they're earning money to go to college, which is important to their future and ours. And we shouldn't repeal -- we shouldn't repeal it. (Applause.)
I guess what I want to say to you is that I don't think the government in any given time is intrinsically good or bad. Is it relevant? Is it working? Does it reflect our values and our interests? That is the question. There are many areas in which we can find agreement, and we must be big enough to seek those areas. Even though in so many places they turned away from the same opportunity in the previous two years, we have to let that go. Our job is to think about the people out there in America -- those who are left behind in this global economy who need help to work their way from the underclass to the middle class. We need to think about people out there who are working harder and falling further behind who deserve to have the American Dream in a swelling opportunity middle class.
We need to be true to many of you in this room who are successful people, who are winning in the global economy, but who know that your ultimate success and that of your children and your grandchildren depends on our ability to go forward together. And you haven't left the Democratic Party because you believe that America is one country and one community, and we're going forward together. We have to be true to those people. (Applause.)
And so we have to work together. I hope that we will get bipartisan support for the administration's Middle Class Bill of Rights, which could just as well be called the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. It reflects all three things that I sought to do from the day I came here: To create a new economic policy; a new way of governing; and a new covenant of rights and responsibilities.
If we give a tax deduction for education after high school, if we let people withdraw tax free from an IRA for educational purposes, we are helping to rebuild our economy; we're having a nonbureaucratic governmental effort to help people grow; and we are establishing rights and responsibilities because you cannot be given an education, all you can be given is an opportunity to get an education -- you have to do that for yourself. (Applause.)
Anybody can offer a tax cut. We saw that for the 12 years before we showed up. You know, you can quadruple the debt of the country, increase inequality and claim you gave everybody a tax cut, even if it wasn't a fair one.
What we ought to do is to give hardworking, middle-class Americans the benefit of this economic recovery by having a tightly disciplined tax relief focused largely on middle-class Americans in ways that are paid for so that we do not explode the deficit. That should be our goal, and that will be my goal. (Applause.)
We're gunning with another round of reinventing government proposals. We want there to be bipartisan support for that. We also think there ought to be some more political reform. I applaud the Republicans for supporting the law applying to Congress the same laws that are applied to the private sector. I think that's a good idea. And we should be for that; everybody should be for that. (Applause.) But we ought not stop there. We ought to also pass lobby reform and require disclosure and ban the gifts and the trips, and let the American people know that there is no special political class in this country forgetting about them.
The Democrats ought to keep pushing until we get lobby reform and responsible campaign finance reform and the things that will move us forward as a people in increasing the trust of the voters in their government. We ought to be doing that and say, join hands with us and do that, too; we like what you did, let's go further. That's the attitude that we ought to have.
And we ought to also be for more welfare reform. But I want to say something about this. I may be the only President who ever actually spent a lot of time talking to people in welfare. I may be the only President who ever, when he was a governor, actually went into a welfare office -- not just one, but many -- and watched how they work. We need to change this system. And our goal should be to move from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, from just proving you can biologically have children to responsible parenting. That ought to be our goal.
But our goal ought to be to liberate the energies and capacities of people to be good parents and to be good workers, not to punish people because they happen to be poor. And there will be some strong differences that need to be debated here, because I believe the American people desperately want a change in the welfare system. I believe they do not like the direction of our culture in terms of the break-up of families and the rising number of our children born out of wedlock. But I do not believe they want to punish parents and children just because they're poor or because they've made some mistakes in their lives.
I think we ought to require a system that promotes parenting, that promotes education, that promotes work. And we can do it in a way that builds people up, not tears them down. We can do it in a way that unites this country, not divides it. And the Democrats ought to take it as their solemn mission to make sure that that is exactly the kind of welfare reform we have in this country when I sign a bill on it. (Applause.)
Finally, let me make this point. Both parties and all candidates bear some responsibility for the fact that our public life has deteriorated in recent years, by treating the voters as if they were purely consumers -- in two senses. First, consumers in the sense that all they care about is economics. That's not true. There are other ways of defining our common security. And second and most importantly, perhaps, for us as a party, that we would treat them as consumers of politics, not participants in it. Who's got the best 30-second add? Who rushes most quickly to define his or her opponent as a bad person? Who answers the add best? And the American people become political couch potatoes, very often no more involved in politics than they are in the Super Bowl.
We've got an excuse -- I do -- for being a couch potato at the Super Bowl; I'm not good enough to play. Or young enough, or strong enough. But we're all good enough to play in citizenship. And one of the reasons that we were successful in 1992 is that we got rid of a bunch of that. We did all those town meetings; we got on those buses and rode across the country; we stopped in little crossroads where nobody had ever been before. (Applause.) And we treated people like they had good sense and could be involved in a dialogue about our country's future.
We must not draw the wrong lesson from the recent election. We must not think that the only answer is for us to have better negative ads than they do. Because we have obligations to the people of this country, as well as to the party we love. And I am telling you -- Andy Jackson, one of the founders of our party, said that the answer to every problem of democracy is more democracy. So we have to do a better job of reconnecting our citizens to our enterprise. The people cannot respond to us just because we pass a lot of bills in Congress; they have to be a part of that. Their lives have to change.
You know, some of the happiest people I've seen in America since I've had the honor of being your President -- people who are fighting disasters. I remember when that 500-year flood hit the middle West. I met a little girl named Brianne Schwantes -- (phonetic) -- who had brittle-bone disease, down in Iowa -- lived in Wisconsin, came down to Iowa -- the child had all kind of broken bones -- fighting the flood, knowing that she could break a lot of her bones again, because it was a great enterprise and it made her feel that she could give something. And all the other people were just the same.
When I was in California last week, we were celebrating the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. They had 5,600 damaged school buildings a year ago; all but 40 are open today. And they are brimming with pride about what they did. They're dealing with the floods. I flew to Northern California -- I went to a little unincorporated town in Congressman Fazio's district, Rio Linda, where Rush Limbaugh had his first radio program. And I was in this little Methodist church with all the volunteers in this flood. And this lady comes up to me - we were all standing around this circle, we were going to say a prayer -- and she puts her arm around me and she said, well, I'm a Republican, Mr. President, but I think I'll stand here with you anyway. Why? Because she was an American first. She was proud of what she was doing. She was helping people in trouble. And she felt more like a person who mattered.
And whether it's right or wrong, whenever our party, that has labored so long and so hard to lift up ordinary people and give them a chance to live out their dreams, suffers a reversal, it's because a lot of them don't think we think they matter. And what we have got to do, in addition to all these things we're doing here in Washington, is to change the way we are conducting politics; to make citizenship matter again; to let people become actors, not couch potatoes, in the great drama that is unfolding.
I am telling you, the next century will be the most exciting time this country ever had. Our best days are still ahead of us. We will have opportunities for people to move from total deprived circumstances into real success because of the technological changes that are occurring if we have the courage to make the right decision, and if we do it together so that people feel they matter. This party would not be here after 200 years unless at every critical juncture in our history, we had been able to do that.
So I tell you, when I say our job is to create opportunity, but to provide responsibility and an opportunity to exercise it, it begins with the work of citizenship. When you go home, I want every one of you to think about that. What can you do with the state party? What ought you to do with the Republican Party in your state? What kind of debates can you sponsor? What kind of ways can you reach out and touch people?
We must make people matter again. You know, we'll win some elections in the future if none of this happens. We'll be smarter and we'll get cleverer and the next time this happens, we'll do better. But what the country needs is to take these incredible technological changes that are going on and use them to connect people together again, not continue to drive them apart. You just think about that.
Why do people think they matter more in adversity than in creating a future that we can all be a part of? Why does there have to be a flood or a tornado before everybody who walks the streets -- without regard to their income, their education, their race, their background or their politics -- feels like they are first and foremost an American? That is what we have to give back to them. And if we do, we'll be doing fine because we will remember that the most important thing is whether the American people do fine.
Thank you and God bless you all. (Applause.)
END1:25 P.M. EST