John F. Kerry photo

"A Contract with Americas Middle Class": Remarks of John Kerry

April 23, 2004

It is an honor to be with you today.

Before we begin, I would like to take time to remember somebody very special to your profession, to Washington, to the nation, and the world.

While the room is filled, I think you'll agree with me when I say that it feels a little empty knowing that Mary McGrory is gone.

33 years ago-during my first week in public life-she was one of the first journalists I met. I came to Washington with other Vietnam Veterans to protest the war. And for me, Mary wasn't just covering the story; she was part of the story. At the hearing, she was there. At the Mall, she was there. And in her 50's she walked with us across the Memorial Bridge to the locked gates at Arlington Cemetery.

A story wasn't just a story to Mary-it was personal. Personal to her and to her readers. Because getting the story right, getting the truth told, and getting her readers involved was her service to her country.

She had a Pulitzer, a loyal following, a loving family and friends, and a spot on Nixon's enemies list. It doesn't get any better than that. Everything that your business can be, Mary was. Everything was on the record. Every source had a name. And every story was a success because she went out and she got it. We will miss her and we are so very grateful that she graced our lives.

Two hundred twenty-nine years ago, the first Patriots from Massachusetts put their lives on the line at Lexington Green. Nearby, Samuel Adams - who was not only a Patriot, but at times a newspaper editor - heard the battle shots of freedom and declared, "What a glorious morning for America is this!"

For once, an editor got it right. Today, with all the grim news we read each day in your newspapers, it is important to remember what a glorious morning it has been for America - and that glorious days lie ahead.

I know that every four years people who are running for president tell you that this is the most important election. Well this one is different: It's the most important election in our lifetime. Today, we confront challenges as great as any in our history.

If you don't believe that this is the most important election in our lifetime, then all you have to do is look at your front pages. We see the haunting images of our soldiers loading flagged draped coffins. We see rows of them in the belly of a cargo plane for their long flight home. We see images of them being saluted on their final march to their final resting place. And those images are paired with a story about a husband and wife who took photos to show the world the touching way we honor our fallen. And they were fired for their openness and honesty. My friends truth is on the line in the election.

If you don't believe that this election is the most important in our life time, then all you have to do is look at the stories about the millions of middle class families who are struggling to get ahead. There are record bankruptcies, record foreclosure rates, and Americans owe more than $750 billion in credit card debt. And last year, because the cost of tuition has soared, 220,000 young people had to give up on their dream of a better future. These men and women built America. They worked hard. They contribute week after week And in return, they're told by this Administration, "You're on your own." My friends fundamental fairness is at stake in this election.

If you don't believe that this election is the most important in our lifetime, then all you have to do is look at the story about Iraq. First, the Administration would have you believe that we are about to turn over authority in Iraq to a new government – a handover that will signal the end of America's occupation. But, in reality, we are no closer to a real Iraqi government able to provide security for its people, make laws and ensure freedoms. This is still America's problem. My friends the strength of our national security is stake in this election.

The American ideas of fundamental fairness, truth, and hope are what brought me to a life of service. And I am running for president because I want to bring those ideas back to the American people so that together, we can build a stronger America.

Ten years ago, the Republicans introduced what they called "The Contract with America." They say that the contract was written to give the American people more faith and trust in their government. But it did the opposite.

This wasn't a "Contract with America." It was a contract against our values and our way of life. Behind the slogans and rhetoric was an effort to balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable Americans – drastic cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit to pay for a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.

The Contract lead to the shut down of our nation's government as Democrats fought to keep open the Department of Education, to preserve our commitment to every child opportunity through good schools.

Supporters of the Contract were willing to shut down the federal government in order to impose their extreme agenda on the nation, including dramatic cuts in clean water programs, child health and nutrition funding, and long term care for America's disabled and parents and grandparents. I was proud to stand up against those fights then, and I'm proud to continue those fights today.

The Contract didn't help our nation. It wasn't a "Contract with America." It was a

Contract that divided America.

And since that time, our politics has defined America down, instead of lifting Americans up with a sense of common purpose. The high road is harder, but it leads to a better place. That is why, in the months ahead, Republicans and Democrats must make this election a campaign of ideas, not attacks - not just point fingers at one another, but point America in a new direction.

I'm even willing to grant that George Bush was right about a couple things in the 2000 campaign: We do need to change the tone in Washington, with leaders who are uniters, not dividers. We do need a responsibility era and a president who's a reformer with results. Those promises were worth making. And if I'm elected those promises will be kept.

So much of what I know about being an American I learned in Vietnam. I didn't have to go, but the tug of duty and country compelled me. The lessons our band of brothers learned have been with us ever since. On that tiny boat, we no longer came from different races, regions, or religions. We were Americans, together under the same flag, stronger for giving ourselves to a cause bigger than ourselves.

That sense of duty has been the defining moment not only of my life, but of my country's. For more than 200 years, that has been the great promise of America: Giving everyone the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential, and challenging them to make the most of it. For too long now, many in our political system have tried to walk away from that basic bargain. I intend to keep it.

So today, let me tell you why I am running for President. I believe we live in a dangerous world, with enemies known and unknown plotting and planning to do us harm. Osama Bin Laden has not been captured or killed, al Qaeda remains a threat as it transforms and changes, and Iraq remains unstable. Together, I know that with the right plan-one that works with the world-we will keep America safe.

I believe that to be strong in the world, we must be strong at home, and that in Andrew Jackson's words, the promise of America is "equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none." I believe the measure of America's economy is a growing middle class, and to achieve that we must expand the reach of opportunity, not the size of government.

I believe in the values that form our common bond: hard work, fairness, and truth. Most of all, I believe that citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights, and that all Americans have a duty to give something back.

But to succeed, a President must set clear priorities. And today, I am introducing my "Contract with America's Middle Class."

The first responsibility of the President is to keep our country safe and secure. And I will. I'm running because we are in a new kind of war, and we need a commander in chief with a plan to fight this war and win it.

Americans have never failed the cause of human freedom, and we will not fail it now-not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not anywhere. I have many differences with President Bush over how we should wage the war against terrorism and extremism. I think he made a huge mistake in relying on local Afghan forces to capture Osama bin Laden, rather than committing sufficient U.S. forces on the ground to do the job.

But we share the same goal of total victory. You can count on this: No matter who wins this presidential election, the terrorists will lose.

As President, I will never hesitate to use American power to defend our interests anywhere in the world. I will stand up for our country, our flag, and our values, and make it clear that the first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with those who wore the uniform of our country.

I will make America's armed forces even stronger by adding troops so our forces are spread to thin around the globe and by making sure our forces have the armor and support they need. But what this administration doesn't understand is that to win this war, we must make the world respect America's other sources of strength: our economic engine, our ideals, and our profound purpose to be the last, best hope of earth.

The second priority in my contract with the middle class is this: I will put the economy and government back in line with our values.

The middle class is the moral and economic backbone of this nation. Franklin Roosevelt realized that and he set in motion programs that helped people go to college, buy a house, and build their wealth. The country prospered: we created nearly 11 million new jobs and homeownership increased by 13 percent from 1950-1960.

President Clinton saw the same thing. His plans invested in people and we created 23 million new jobs, 7 million Americans were lifted out of poverty, and more Americans went to college. The middle class built this country. They work hard, pay their bills, and do right by their families and their country. This country ought to do right by them.

For too long, this Administration hasn't honored those values, and it certainly hasn't lived up to them. They've put wealth ahead of work, something-for-nothing ahead of responsibility, and special privilege for the few ahead of what's right for the nation.

My plan will create 10 million jobs with a proven strategy built on a simple principle: We should reward work, make sure Americans have a chance to work, and get ahead when they do.

That's why we can cut taxes for businesses that do right by America and reward companies for creating jobs here instead of for moving jobs overseas. If a company is torn between creating jobs here or overseas, we now have a tax code that tells you to go overseas. That's wrong. And if I am President, it will end.

We'll put the federal government back in line with our values as well, by capping spending and getting rid of programs that don't work. I believe the private sector is the engine of economic growth, and that instead of being a burden to business, government has a duty to help business succeed.

Responsibility must begin in Washington, not end there. When I first came to the Senate in 1985, the federal deficit was soaring, as it is today. I stood up to others in my party to join reformers like Warren Rudman and Fritz Hollings to push for a deficit reduction plan with real teeth. In 1993, and again in 1997, I joined President Clinton to put the nation's house in order and balance the budget for the first time since Vietnam.

Now, our budget is a mess again and we must fix it to keep our country strong. My plan calls for no new spending without cutbacks to pay for that spending. My plan will end corporate welfare as we know it, roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and impose a real cap on spending. When I put forward a new idea, I'll tell you how I'm going to pay for it. As I have already shown in this campaign, I won't just hold everyone else's proposals to that tough standard; I will apply it to my own.

Third, I will say to America's middle class, and all who wish to join its ranks: I have a plan to raise your income and a commitment to cut your taxes.

On this President's watch, Americans are working harder, earning less, and paying more for health care and college and taxes. The average American family is making $1,400 less a year; we've lost 2.6 million private sector jobs; and the industries that are expanding pay an average of $9,000 less than ones that are contracting. Families are paying $800 more a year for health care, and $1,000 more to send their children to college.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has engineered the greatest tax shift in American history. Middle-class Americans are now paying more of the national budget; wealthy Americans are paying less. The middle class burden has gone up, while incomes have gone down. That's why to build a strong economy, I'll cut middle-class taxes, so middle-class incomes go up.

Throughout this campaign, I have disagreed with those in my own party who would take away the middle class tax cuts many of us fought for. My economic plan cuts middle-class taxes by three times as much as George Bush. My plan makes it easier for millions of families to pay for health care, and gives families a tax credit on up to $4,000 in college tuition. Under my plan, 98% of Americans and 99% of American businesses will get a tax cut.

Unlike this President, I have a health care plan that goes after health care costs that are killing American jobs and burdening American families, and an energy plan to hold down costs and make America energy independent.

Fourth, I will keep faith with America's middle class by ushering in a new era of reform. I've been a reformer throughout my career. But I know that the job of a reformer is never done. Since I came to the Senate, I've been fighting for reform on every front. I crossed party lines to support Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget reform in 1985, when fiscal discipline was a dirty word in my own party.

I took what I had learned as a prosecutor, and fought to pass the 100,000 cops program. We changed the way we fight crime in America - and helped cut violent crime by a third.

When my party was divided over welfare, I voted to pass a landmark welfare reform law with tough work requirements and time limits. We cut the welfare rolls in half, cut poverty in single-parent households by a third, and made welfare a second chance, not a way of life.

When both parties and this administration dragged their feet on political reform, I kept fighting till we passed it - and I'm the only senator ever to run four times without taking a dime of PAC money.

Together, I know that we can build a stronger America with real reforms that get real results. I will continue to fix our political system by fighting for campaign finance reform. I will work hard to find more ways for our government to work better for our people. I will shine a light on the secret deals in Washington by reinstating the 5-year ban on lobbying so that government officials cannot cash in with influence peddling and by making sure meetings are open.

I will reform out of control spending by putting in place budget caps that assure Washington has to live within its means. I will cut waste and abuse out of our health care system by giving incentives for smarter more efficient systems.

I will reform corporate America by requiring corporations to report to their shareholders and what they report to the IRS. And I will reform our tax code by ending incentives for companies to send jobs overseas.

Government should take less money from the middle class, and do more to make sure their hard-earned tax dollars go to solve their real problems

For example, we have to invest more on health care if we're going to keep businesses from cutting jobs and going under. But putting more money into the health care system won't do any good if we don't reform it to get health costs under control-which is exactly what my plan does.

We know that education is the key to opportunity in America and the way to get ahead in the 21st Century. This President has broken the promise of education reform by failing to keep up Washington's end of the bargain. But my plan will do more: investing more in our public schools and expecting more from them in return. My plan will cut taxes to help middle-class families send their children to college, but it also includes reforms to make college affordable again, after three years of the steepest tuition inflation on record.

We need to take these steps to help our working families and we need to make sure that they are paid for. And I will pay for my education and health care plans by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

We need to work together to bring opportunity back to America so that our country can grow stronger. I am a Democrat who believes, like Franklin Roosevelt, my test is not whether an idea is Republican or Democrat, but whether it will work.

On all the issues I've talked about today, the country faces the choice of whether we want to go forward toward strength, or defend the status quo. But to move America forward, no president, and no government can shoulder this burden alone. We cannot be a stronger nation unless the American people do their part. I will never forget the words of the man who inspired me to public life. John Kennedy gave America a set of challenges, not promises, and said what he offered us mattered less than what he would ask of us.

America is more than a nation; it is an idea, based on the belief in the dignity and duty of every citizen - that all of us have something to give, and each of us has a responsibility to serve.

This is the time for all of us to summon that American spirit to build a stronger country. And I know that the American people are ready. That is why I am running for President. The American people are just waiting to hear their country's call. And when they report to do their part, what a glorious morning for America it will be. Thank you.

John F. Kerry, "A Contract with Americas Middle Class": Remarks of John Kerry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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