Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner in Philadelphia

October 02, 1998

Thank you very much. I kind of hate to follow Rendell tonight. [Laughter] It's a true story, that story you heard about me asking if he modeled for these sculptures. [Laughter] You know, he did so well tonight, I think he sort of halfway talked himself into believing it. It was great. [Laughter]

I tell you, I would just like to say one serious thing about the mayor. I remember when we walked the street here in 1992, when he took me into a neighborhood where the gangs and the drugs had been cleared out. I remember when we shot baskets together. He won. [Laughter] I think I've demonstrated to the whole world that I'm not always very smart, but I was smart enough to know I shouldn't win that basketball game in '92. [Laughter] I knew the only score I was trying to win was in November and that it would help if I took a well-considered dive. [Laughter] No, he beat me fair and square, actually.

But I want you to know that to me it's just literally thrilling to come here to this city to see what has been done, to see the whole sort of spirit of the place, to see the neighborhoods that have come back, to see the people that are working, to see the projects that are on line.

And when I became President, I believed that we needed in Washington to find a way to reduce the deficit until we balanced the budget, to reduce the size of Government, to reduce the burden of regulation, to reduce the plethora of programs in a lot of these areas, but to be more active in creating the conditions and giving people the tools to solve their problems at the grassroots level.

And every tool that we put out there, Ed Rendell used as well or better as anyone in America. And it is an awesome thing to see. And I just want to thank him for proving through this city that this great country can solve its problems, meet its challenges, and work in a stunning fashion. I am very grateful to him, not only for his friendship and support but for what he's done for you and for our country as mayor.

I would like to thank Congressman Bob Borski and Congressman Bob Brady and Congressman Chaka Fattah for being with me tonight and for being with me in Washington, where it really counts and where they have counted for you. I would like to thank our State party chair, Tina Tartaglione, a member of the legislature, I know; and Senator Fumo, thank you for coming, and all the other public officials who are here. I'd like to thank my good friend Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky for running for Lieutenant Governor and being my friend.

Tonight Hillary is finishing a trip to Uruguay, where they had one of a series of conferences that she's done around the world. The last one was in Northern Ireland. They're called Vital Voices conferences, where she goes to places and gets together women who are working for peace and reconciliation and development, and dealing with health and family related problems. And Marjorie has helped her a lot on that, and I'm very, very grateful to her, and for so much else.

Finally, let me say I want to thank Len Barrack for doing a fabulous job as the finance director of the DNC. The job has been good for him. He's even wearing three-button suits now—[laughter]—taken years off his life, looks so much younger.

Let me say very briefly, Ed talked about some of these issues tonight, but I would like to try to put this in some historical perspective. In 1992, when the citizens of this city gave Al Gore and me a great vote of endorsement and helped us to win the State of Pennsylvania, which was pivotal in our victory, we ran on a platform of change that said we didn't like very much what was going on in Washington and just the constant, endless, partisan bickering and rhetoric and setting up the American people against each other—business against labor, the economy against the environment, dividing the races, dividing present citizens against immigrants—all these things were going on as if there were no way out of these boxes that would build America, that would bring us together and move us forward.

And we said, among other things, if you vote for us we'll give you a Government that's smaller but more active. We'll reduce the deficit and balance the budget, but we'll invest more money in education and medical research and the environment. We said we would try to deal with some of the challenges in the health care system and extend coverage to more people. We said that we thought we could improve the environment and grow the economy. We thought that we could be pro-business and pro-labor. We thought we could have a welfare system that required people who were able-bodied to work, without hurting them in their more important job, which is raising their children by doing what many in the other party wanted to do, which was to cut off their guarantee of nutrition and health care benefits to their children.

So we had a lot of ideas, and they were going to be tested. And after 6 years, most of those ideas have now been enacted into law and have been for some time part of the public policy of our country. I am very grateful for where America is tonight and grateful that you gave me the chance to do what I have done to contribute to that and grateful for your contributions. I'm grateful that we have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years and the lowest crime in 25 years and the smallest percentage of people on welfare in 29 years and now the first balanced budget and surplus in 29 years. And we have record numbers of new businesses in each of the last 6 years, the fastest rising wages in over 20 years, the lowest poverty rate among African-Americans ever recorded, the biggest drop among Hispanics in 30 years. I'm grateful for all that.

The real question I want you to think about tonight when you leave here is why you came here—besides the fact that Ed made you— [laughter]—why you came here and what you're going to do when you leave. Because for all the kind and generous and wonderful things that the people of Philadelphia said to me today and the messages they gave, through me, to Hillary today, I have to tell you that I think that the biggest challenge we face in this election season is not adversity but complacency.

Painful though it is, I think adversity is our friend, not only for reasons of personal development and change but because when adversity affects any group of people, it forces you to dig down deep and ask yourself what you believe in, what you're doing, whatever you're doing it for, and what you intend to do tomorrow.

And usually when times are good like this, people relax. And with these elections coming up, our friends in the Republican Party, they believe they're going to be successful for two reasons: One, in spite of your presence here today, they always have tons more money than we do, which they spend very cleverly at the end. And secondly, they know that at midterm elections typically people who always vote in Presidential elections don't go vote. They don't go vote. And a lot of our folks—Ed talked about the child care issue—for a lot of the people that normally vote with our people, it's a lot more trouble for them to go vote. They have to balance children and work, and worry about child care. And election day is a work day, and it's a hassle.

And so I ask you, we have to decide, what is it that we should as a people do with this moment of prosperity, with this moment of confidence? And I would argue to you that we ought to think about the big challenges facing this country over the long run and the specific things we ought to be doing right now.

If you look at the big challenges over the long run facing America, what are they? Well, at home, when the baby boomers retire, we have got to modify Social Security and Medicare so it's there for the people that need it at a cost that doesn't bankrupt our children. It's a big challenge.

We've got to make sure that to go along with the finest higher education system in the world, we can offer world-class elementary and secondary education to every child without regard to race or income or neighborhood. We can't say that today, and we've got to be able to say that.

We've got to modify the international financial systems and trading systems so that we don't have the kind of instability you see today in Asia and Russia, and so that they work for ordinary people, so that we put a human face on the global economy, so that all these people in other countries that we depend upon to buy our products and services really believe that this system will work for them. If you want freedom and free enterprise to work around the world, it has to work for real people, just like it does in this country. Otherwise, it's not sustainable.

We have to prove all over the world that we can improve the environment and grow the economy, that there is not a connection between environmental destruction and economic growth anymore. And there isn't, by the way, on the evidence.

Now, we have to prove that we can get more and more and more diverse racially, religiously, culturally, politically, and still find a way to come together as one America. Those are just some of the really big challenges out there facing us.

What does that mean when you come down to the present day? Ed talked about a couple things. I think the biggest decisions facing us right now are: one, a decision to do the right thing for our children and our parents and not spend this surplus until we have overhauled the Social Security system in the 21st century.

Two, I think that we should make a clear commitment that we are going to continue to lead the world economically, that we recognize our own economy and our prosperity cannot be maintained if everybody else in the world gets in trouble, and there are too many people in trouble now in the world. And we have to lead the world. That means that Congress ought to give me the money—not for me, to our country—to contribute to the International Monetary Fund so we can keep this economy going. That's very important.

Three, Ed talked about education. Let me just—8 months ago in the State of the Union, I gave the Congress an education plan designed to make concrete my belief that we had to make sure every 8-year-old could read, every 12-yearold could log on to the Internet, every 18-yearold could go to college, and every adult could keep learning for a lifetime—to try to make real my belief that we've got to be able to say that all the kids in this country have access to a world-class elementary and secondary education.

And the program I put before the Congress was not a partisan program. It was based on the best ideas I could find around the country and the 20 years of experience that Hillary and I have had going into classrooms, going into schools, and looking at the research. So we did. We said, "Look, we'll put 100,000 teachers out there. They will all be well trained. And we'll put them in the early grades so we can lower average class size to 18, because all the research shows that small classes in the early grades guarantee more individual attention, higher levels of learning, and permanent learning benefits."

Then we will do what Ed talked about with the school facilities, because there are so many places where the school population is growing now, where there are these temporary classrooms. I was in one little town in Florida that had 12 of these behind one building, one school building. And then there are a lot of cities that have magnificent buildings, like Philadelphia, that simply can't be maintained and repaired given the present budget.

So we put a program forward that will allow us to build or repair 5,000 school buildings— be a good start on America's school challenge. We say our kids are the most important things in the world, but what kind of a message does it give a child to walk up the steps to a school building where the windows are broken out or a whole floor is closed down or all the windows have to be boarded up because nobody can afford the utility bills because they haven't been insulated properly? I see this kind of stuff all over America.

The third thing we wanted to do was to give districts the encouragement to impose high standards on kids and to stop just promoting them whether they were learning anything or not, but not to brand the children failures because the system is a failure. So we wanted to give districts the opportunity to have mentoring programs, after-school programs, summer school programs, so that kids could be held to higher standards, but would not be branded failures and instead would be helped, if they were prepared in school district after school district after school district to have those standards.

We wanted to give 35,000 bright young people college scholarships and pay all their expenses and say, "Now you can go out and pay all your college debt off by going into educationally underserved areas in the inner cities and rural areas and teaching for a few years and paying your expenses off." We wanted to provide the funds to hook up every classroom in the country to the Internet by the year 2000. And all that is paid for in the balanced budget.

And the fourth thing we wanted to do was to try to have some uniform rules for HMO's. And 43—43 HMO's have supported the Patients' Bill of Rights because they want to do this, and they don't think they can economically unless it's the same rules for everybody. And the rules are pretty simple: If you're in an accident and you have to get in an ambulance, you ought to be taken to the nearest emergency room, not one clear across town because it's the one that's covered. If your doctor says you need to see a specialist, you can see one. If you're in the middle of treatment and your employer changes providers, they can't make you change doctors in the middle of a pregnancy or a chemotherapy treatment. And you get to have your records remain private.

Now, those are four specific examples of the big problems, of the things we can do right now to address these big problems.

Now, what's happened on the other side? Our friends in the other party with their majority this year, here's what they've done on those four things. Number one, on Social Security first, the House passed a tax cut because it's appealing 4 or 5 weeks before an election. And the Senate has it now, and I think they may have figured out that the people may be a little more broadminded and farsighted than they think, because I'm not sure they'll send it to me and let me veto it. [Laughter]

Number two, on the International Monetary Fund, most of the people who immediately know about this are Republicans, international business people. The Senate passed it overwhelmingly. We're still waiting for the House to vote for it, and every single day that goes by, we run the risk of increased instability in the world and increased risk to America. Now, I've been waiting for this for 8 months, and I'm telling you, this is a big American issue— still no action.

On education, no action. On the health care bill of rights, the House passed a bill that guarantees none of these rights—none that I mentioned—and cuts 100 million Americans out what little it did guarantee. And so it went to the Senate. Now, in the Senate the rules are different, and our guys can bring up our bill. So when we tried to bring up our bill, the majority leader of the Senate—I never thought I'd live to see this—they shut the Senate down the other night. They closed the house for 4 hours to keep the Patients' Bill of Rights from being considered. They just turned the lights out. People got under their desk, or did whatever they did. [Laughter] It was death by the stealth to the Patients' Bill of Rights. Why? Because they did not want to be recorded being against what they fully intended to kill.

Now, a few other things have happened this year. They killed the minimum wage increase. They killed campaign finance reform, which would have relieved you of some of the pain of being here tonight. [Laughter] They killed the tobacco reform legislation, which would have protected our children from what is still the number one public health problem in America today.

Now, that is what is happening. This stuff matters. And, oh, by the way, in the way of tax cuts, we had a targeted tax cut program, and it covered child care, as Ed Rendell said. It helped small businesses take out pension plans for their employees. And it was all paid for.

And on health care, we did have a provision so that 55- to 65-year-old people could buy into health care plans, because a huge number of them are forced into early retirement or their spouses go on Medicare, but they can't, so they lose their employer-based coverage, don't have any health insurance. And it doesn't cost much money. No action.

So I say to you, what is really at stake here is about whether this election is about Washington or about you; whether it's about power and politics or people; whether it's about partisanship or progress.

And when you leave here tonight, I want you to really think—go home and just talk. If you've got couples here tonight, talk among yourselves. What do you think the really big challenges facing this country are going to be in the next 25 or 30 years? What do you think the things are that we could do right now that would address them most? And if you believe we ought to save Social Security before we squander the first surplus we've had in a generation, if you believe we should pass this health care bill of rights, if you believe that we should put education first among our investment priorities, if you think—we ought to do what is necessary to keep America strong economically and in the leadership of the world economy and fighting for peace and freedom.

Our strength, economically, enables us to be a force for peace in Northern Ireland; enables us to continue to hold out hope of peace and work for it in the Middle East; enables us to do what we're trying to do now to avert a horrible incidence of the death of innocents in Kosovo this winter; enables us to try to work with other countries to bring down the threat of terrorism and nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons. It all rests on America's sense of strength and purpose.

Now, if you believe that we ought to be for those things, and if you believe this election ought to be about you and your children and your grandchildren and the other people that live in Philadelphia, then I would challenge you not to leave your citizenship responsibilities with the signing of the check that you wrote to get here tonight, because the direction of these issues will be determined not only by how people vote but whether they vote.

And so I say in closing, adversity is not our enemy—complacency is. This is the greatest country in history. For 220 years, against all the odds, no matter what happens, we always somehow figure out how to do the right thing to get a little closer to our ideals of a more perfect Union, of freedom and opportunity for everybody. And we can do it this time. But we need your voice. We need your efforts. We need you to talk like I'm talking to you, to everybody you see between now and November.

So when you go home tonight and you ask yourself, "Why did I go there?" I hope your answer will be, "Because I wanted to know exactly what I should do as a citizen in the next 5 weeks to do right by my country in the 21st century."

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:15 p.m. in Room 202 at Philadelphia City Hall. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia and State Senator Vincent Fumo.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Democratic National Committee Dinner in Philadelphia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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