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Remarks at the Democratic Governors Association Dinner

January 30, 1995

Thank you very much. I appreciate your enthusiasm. Chris Dodd has that effect on everyone. [Laughter] Governor Carnahan and Jean, thank you very much for your service here and for your success tonight. I really would like to say a special word of thanks to my neighbor Mel Carnahan. He helped me when I ran for President. He helped me even when he was in the midst of a tough primary when it could have done him no good at all to be for anybody running for President. But he survived me, and he got elected—[laughter]—and then I got elected. We worked together fighting floods, reforming welfare, doing a lot of things, and I am honored to be his friend and his partner.

I want to say a special word of appreciation, too, to the DGA vice chair, Governor Caperton, and Rachel. I have been their friend for a long time, and I'm looking forward to working with them.

I also want to say a personal word of appreciation to your outgoing chair, Evan Bayh, and to Susan. They did unbelievable work with the help of a lot of you in a very, very difficult year, and I will never forget all the efforts Evan Bayh made. And you know, where I grew up, we always say, "It's a long road that doesn't turn." And when the road turns, don't forget that Evan Bayh was there for us when it was tough, and he did his part.

I thank Katy Whelan and Mark Weiner for the wonderful work that they have done for the DGA. They have really been terrific.

I'm sure glad to see all of you. And you're so quiet. You know, over New Year's I was talking to a lot of interesting people, and a lady came up to me who was a college president, and she said, "You know, I really identify with you. Being president is just like running a cemetery. There's a lot of people under you, but nobody's listening." [Laughter] Well, I've had that feeling for the last couple of years from time to time, but I think that also is beginning to change. Lord knows, I gave it a good test last Tuesday night in the State of the Union— [laughter]—and it turned out the American people were listening.

I want to express my appreciation also to Chris Dodd and to Don Fowler, to Debbie DeLee for leading our Democratic Party. I thank Chris and Don especially for being willing to come on at this time and to help us remember who we are and why we are Democrats and what it is we're supposed to do now, and I thank them. They've done a wonderful job.

You know, there are days when I really miss being a Governor. I loved it. I mean, we also had public housing and security, and people called us by something other than our first names. But nobody ever sprayed the front of the Governor's mansion with an assault weapon or tried to land a plane in my back yard. [Laughter] But most days, I am profoundly happy to have the chance to wage these battles, and every day I am honored for the opportunity and the obligation to do it.

You know, it's kind of fashionable now for our colleagues in the other party to quote Franklin Roosevelt. They like his words, you know; it's optimism and hope and everything. And when they do it, they have a little spin on it. They say, "Now, Roosevelt was the right person for his time, and the Democrats were right for their time." If you really read between the lines, they basically say, "Okay, okay, everything that was worth doing in the 20th century, the Democrats did." I agree with that. But their line is something like, "Well, the reason that's so is that in the 20th century we had an industrial age dominated by large, powerful organizations, and we needed a Democratic Party that was the party of National Government to protect the common people and the little children and the elderly and others from abuse by large private organizations. But in the 21st century, the world will be very different. It will be more rapidly changing, more entrepreneurial, less bureaucratic, the age of the PC, not the mainframe." You've heard all that stuff. "And therefore, we don't need the Democrats any more. They're an anachronism. But we like Roosevelt's words."

Well, I say to them, I know the world is changing, and I know we need to reduce the size and reach of much of the Federal Government's activities. As a matter of fact, we started that. We're glad to have their help in going forward with it. But the issue facing America is the issue that has faced America from the beginning and, certainly, the issue that has faced America repeatedly in the 20th century, as we stand at the dawn of a new era. It is still: Can we really guarantee the American dream for all Americans willing to work for it? And can we find ways with all of our incredible differences to come together as a people to do what we have to do? If you go back through the 219 years of American history since the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, you find those challenges over and over and over again. Will we do what it takes to expand the American dream and keep it alive for all of our people? Can we find a way, with all of our differences, to come together, because we know that's the only way we're ever profoundly strong? I say to you that there is still something for the Democratic Party to do.

Consider, consider the differences in their Contract and our Covenant. Consider what is good about what they want to do and what is good about what we want to do and what is sort of open to question, and you will see where we should go. Because there is no question that if we really want to guarantee the American dream in this new economy for all of our people, what we have to do is to empower people to make the most of their own lives, to find a way to continue to enhance opportunity even as we shrink the bureaucracy, and to strengthen our sense of citizenship and community as a fundamental condition of America's security, opportunity, and responsibility.

Yes, yes, yes, we must change the Government. Yes, we have to shrink it. There's 100,000 fewer people working for the Federal Government than there were on the day I became President, and there'll be another 170,000 more leaving if no new laws are passed by this Congress. But what about empowerment? Which party wanted family and medical leave? Which party wanted to immunize all the children in this country against serious disease? Which party said, "We can't afford to keep wasting money on the college loan program. Let's cut the cost of it, make it available to more Americans, and make it cheaper for students"? The Democratic Party did that.

Yes, we should reduce the tax burden on people that are paying all they can afford. You know, that's the only secret I kept from the press the last 2 years. We cut taxes on 15 million working families, kept it a total secret from the American people. [Laughter] I'm still trying to figure out how we did it, but it's not too late to let them know.

Yes, we have to do better. But there is the right way to do it. Our middle class bill of rights could more properly be called the bill of rights and responsibilities because you can't get the tax break unless you're trying to raise your kids or educate them or educate yourselves or take care of your families. In other words, we reward, by reducing the tax burden, people who are carrying on the work of citizenship and making the country stronger for everybody. We lower people's taxes and raise their income in the short run in a way that will also raise their income in the long run. That's why we ought to have a tax deduction for education costs after high school. That's why we ought to have an IRA that can be drawn on for education or health care or care of an elderly parent. That's why we ought to lower the cost of raising young children. That's why we ought to collapse all these terrible plethora of programs, and instead of letting people sign up for a Government program, give them a chit worth cash that they can take to the local community college when they're unemployed or they need job training. Yes, we have some good ideas. Let's cut the taxes, but let's do it in a way that raises the economic power of America in the long run and helps middle class families to build their lives.

And while we're at it, let's not forget that the last time the country got in a total fever over tax cutting, we overdid it, and we wound up with a terrible burden. And the Democrats are not blameless, because then there was a Republican President and a Democratic Congress. And when power is divided, one of two things can happen: You can either share the responsibility and say both have to be responsible and move forward, or you can point the finger of blame and hope that everybody can escape responsibility.

Well, we tried it the second way, folks, and it didn't work out very well. When you make out your checks to the Federal Government to pay taxes in April, remember this: Interest payments on the Federal debt will require the amount equal to 36 percent of your personal income tax. And 27 percent of it, 27 cents, more than a quarter of every dollar you pay to the Federal Government in personal income taxes, will be required to pay interest on the debt run up between 1981 and the day I became President.

So yes, it's okay to cut taxes if we do it in the right way, but let's pay for these tax cuts with spending cuts. Let's don't put more debt on our children and more burdens in that budget.

So, we have an agenda: to empower people, pass the middle class bill of rights and raise the minimum wage and reform the welfare system so people can go to work. And we have an agenda to reduce Government more. The Vice President's coming back with another round of reinventing Government. And we're going to make it smaller, and we're going to have it do better.

Look at the way the emergency management programs work now. I just talked to the homebuilders today in Houston, and I reminded them that Henry Cisneros, since he's been head of the Housing and Urban Development Department, has reduced the size of that Department by 10 percent, eliminated all the regional offices, and cut the time for loan processing from 4 to 6 weeks down to 3 to 5 days. That's a Democratic way of reinventing Government that serves better with less.

You can say, "Well, maybe this won't work." Well, maybe it won't, but it's worked pretty well for 2 years. We have almost 6 million jobs more than we had 2 years ago. We've reduced the debt on our families by over $600 billion, about $10,000 a family. We've seen in the last week that 1994 was our best year economically in terms of growth and in terms of personal income increases in 10 years. And we also had the lowest combined rates of inflation and unemployment—what President Reagan used to call the misery index—the lowest in 1994 it's been in 25 years.

But we have a long way to go, because we all know that our rising tide is not lifting all boats. We know that a lot of people are not doing better economically. We all know there are still challenges ahead. But let's keep our eye on the goal: What's best for the American people? Empower them to compete and win. Do what we can to give them a Government that offers more opportunity with less bureaucracy. And finally, let's not forget that for those who are willing to be responsible, this country is best when it works together, when there's a sense of partnership, a sense of citizenship, a sense of community.

We have worked with innovative Governors in this room and their predecessors in health care, in welfare reform. We've worked with Governors like Governor Chiles, Governor Kitzhaber, Governor Dean on health care reform, and we're not through with that issue. We plead guilty to wanting to get the 40 million Americans, most of them in working families, who can't have health insurance—we think we ought to have it for them, and we think there must be a way to do it that all Americans can agree on. We plead guilty to believing that when people change jobs, they ought not to lose their family's health insurance. We believe that. That's what we believe. And we can do these things in ways that build our community.

Watch the debate on welfare reform. Should we require responsibility? You bet we should. Should we just give people a check forever and a day, no matter how they behave or what they do? No, we shouldn't. No, we shouldn't. But the focus ought to be on liberating people, moving them from welfare to work, moving them from having children to being the best possible parent. It should not be on punishing people because they're poor or because they made a mistake. If that were the criteria, a bunch of us were once poor, and all of us have made mistakes, and none of us want to be punished for either one.

So, let us approach this welfare debate with a sense of excitement and determination but also a little bit of humility. If anyone knew the answer to this problem, it would have been fixed by now. But the welfare debate embodies all the things that are going on in our culture now: our worry that Government doesn't give us our money's worth; our fear that our profoundest problems are really cultural, not political or economic, that something is amiss in our society and we've got to get our values right again; our deep understanding that we don't really have anybody to waste and when people aren't being as productive as they ought to be, it hurts the rest of us and our economic future as well. All of this is there in this debate.

Now, Saturday we had a very good meeting with Republicans and Democrats from the Congress, from the Governors, from the local governments around the country. And on Friday, I got ready for that meeting by spending an hour with four women who had worked their way off welfare. And I'm telling you, what I heard Friday is what I have heard now for 15 years. The people who know how broke the system is, best, are those who've been on it, who've been trapped by it, who regret it, who've resented it, who struggled and worked and slaved to get out of it. It is that that we should tap into.

We are the party of change. We brought the deficit down. We reduced the size of the Government. We put welfare reform and health care reform and aggressive, expansive trade on the world's agenda and on America's agenda. It was our administration that first had a Commerce Secretary like Ron Brown that went around selling American products all over the world, not the Republicans.

So I say, let's extend the hand of partnership to those in the other party. Let's say, "We hear you. You want to reduce the size of Government? You want to reduce regulation? You want to give more authority to the States? You want to privatize those things which can be privatized? So do we."

But our contract is a covenant. We want to create opportunity, not just bash Government. We want children to have a future no matter where they come from, what their roots are, what their disabilities are by virtue of their birth. We believe that America works best when everybody's got a chance at the brass ring. That is our credo, and it will always be. And that's why the Democrats are coming back.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:06 p.m. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri and his wife, Jean; Gov. Gaston Caperton of West Virginia and his wife, Rachel; Gov. Evan Bayh of Indiana and his wife, Susan; Katherine Whelan, executive director, and Mark Weiner, treasurer, Democratic Governors Association; Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida; Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon; Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont; and Democratic National Committee officers Senator Christopher Dodd, general chairman, Donald Fowler, national chairman, and Debra DeLee, former interim chair.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Democratic Governors Association Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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