John F. Kerry photo

Remarks to the Democratic Leadership Council

May 07, 2004

I'm pleased to be able to share this National Conversation, because that is what this election ought to be: not a shouting match, but a conversation with the American people about our ideas, our values, and our plan for a stronger America. The most important election in our lifetime ought to be a contest of ideas to lift America up, not a cynics' game to define America down.

As governors, mayors, county officials, and state legislators from 40 states, you prove every day that ideas matter. You balance budgets every year, you turn around schools, you keep your people safe. Every day, you do what Washington hasn't done in almost four years-you get real results and make a real difference in the lives of ordinary people.

In 2000, when John McCain had him on the run, George Bush made up a slogan: "Reformer with Results." Four years later, Americans are still waiting to see the reformer, but they've had enough of the results!

The banner behind me says it all. From the economy and the budget to the public schools and welfare as we know it, the American people deserve Real Reformers and Real Results - and when I'm President, that's finally what they'll get.

We all know: The first responsibility of the President is to keep our country safe and secure. That means honoring America's calling to be the strongest force for freedom around the world and the greatest engine of opportunity here at home. That is why I am running for President. And I will never cede the issue of strength to the other party.

Strength means working with our allies to win the war on terror, not going it alone. Strength means taking responsibility. Today, Secretary Rumsfeld apologized on Capitol Hill. But the chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office. Harry Truman did not say "The buck stops at the Pentagon." And after 241 Marines were killed by terrorists in Beirut, Ronald Reagan had the strength to say, "If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this Office and with this President. And I accept responsibility for the bad as well as the good.

America does not merely need a new Secretary of Defense. We need a new President. One who is strong enough to give our brave troops the allies and the armor they need; and one who is strong enough to take responsibility and, when necessary, correct course. We need a President who knows the difference between strength – and stubbornness.

Strength means standing up to the chemical industry to protect our chemical plants from attack, not giving in to big campaign checks. Strength means giving our firefighters and police officers the equipment and training they need to keep us safe, not telling local officials: "You're on your own."

Strength means lifting up the middle class and giving them the bigger tax break, not just the wealthiest Americans. Strength means having a health care plan that lowers costs, not pretending that nothing's wrong. Strength means ensuring that our kids get a good education, not just in affluent neighborhoods but everywhere. Strength means balancing the budget, not passing on trillions of dollars in debt to our kids. And strength means leading in a way that brings opportunity to all and special privileges to none.

It is time America had a president who understands that strength abroad means providing real leadership in the world, and taking responsibility for the bad as well as the good. And strength at home means building a stronger economy by getting results for the American people, and demanding accountability.

This is the kind of president we need in Washington, the kind of president I will be. It's not a new way or a third way-it's the right way to lead America and make America strong again.

Our opponents think that all they have to do is run $60 million in misleading ads. They think we'll back down and we'll cede them the issue of strength. Well, if they think the tired old arguments of the past are going to win in this new world-they guessed wrong. We will debate this Administration on every issue, any time, any place. We're ready because we know that they don't own the flag: they don't own patriotism; they don't own strength. All of these values belong to all of America. And we're going to stand our ground, tell the truth, and fight for a country that lives up to our ideals.

I have many differences with the administration about the war in Iraq. And one of the greatest differences is that I believe that when America works with the world, it's a sign of strength, not weakness.

A little more than a year ago, the President declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq and said, "mission accomplished." I don't think there's anyone in this room today or 6,000 miles away who doesn't wish that those words had been true. But we've seen the news. We've seen the pictures. And we know we are living through days of great danger.

But this is not the time to shout. It is a time for a new direction in Iraq and for America to work together so that once again this nation leads in a way that brings the world to us and with us in our efforts.

This is how America can lead and should lead. And we should be the leaders in condemning those appalling images of abuse that are flashing across television screens all over the world.

We cannot succeed in Iraq by abandoning the values that define America. Today, I have a message for our men and women in uniform: As Commander-in-Chief, I will honor your commitment and I will take responsibility for the bad as well as the good.

When I am President, I will demand accountability from those who serve and I will take responsibility for their actions. And I will do everything I can do to repair the damage this has caused to America, to our standing in the world, and for the ideals for which we stand. That is my promise to our troops. That is my promise to our nation.

In the end, America is stronger and the American people are safer when we are respected around the world, not just feared. And that's the kind of leadership I'll restore in the White House.

I am running for president because we have not done enough to win the war on terror. We have to do more to plug big holes in our homeland defense in intelligence, information sharing, and bioterrorism. And in Afghanistan, I believe this administration let its guard down.

I think they 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.

As President, I will never hesitate to use American power to defend our interests anywhere in the world. I will make America's armed forces even stronger by adding troops so our forces are not spread too thin around the globe and by making sure our forces have the armor and support they need.

To this day, nothing angers me more than those in the other party who try to claim strength as their issue, even as they shortchange the soldiers and veterans who've kept us strong.

You can't honor freedom and forget the men and women who fight and die to keep us free. 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 wear the uniform of our country.

For 30 years since Vietnam, the other party has tried to frighten voters into thinking that only Republicans care about national security. They attacked us so often that some in our party would rather try to change the subject to the economy than show our real national security strength. Two years ago, I came to the DLC National Conversation in New York to put my party on notice that the terrorists aren't going to change the subject, and we shouldn't, either.

The other side was wrong about us then, and they are wrong now. As long as I am its leader, this party will put the strength of America first.

Throughout this campaign, I have offered a positive vision of how we'll do a better job of keeping Americans safe and restoring America's ability to lead the world. We must follow in the footsteps of great, tough-minded statesman in our party - Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, to name a few. That is the great tradition of the DLC and of our party: A strong America depends on a strong American role in the world and an unsurpassed defense.

We understand what this Administration does not: America wasn't put here to dominate the world. We have a higher calling: to lead it.

America and the world need us to lead, because this administration hasn't and it won't. Like the Cold War, the struggle we face today may go on for decades, and once again, the United States must rally the forces of freedom and democracy around the world to defeat this new menace.

Al Qaeda remains a threat as it transforms and changes, Taliban remnants are launching bolder attacks in Afghanistan, and America's enemy number one -- Osama bin Laden - remains at large. The President's economic policies have weakened America's economic leadership and leverage in the world. And by steering a unilateral course, the administration has bred global mistrust of our motives and unloosed a torrent of anti-Americanism abroad.

Our military strength may be at an all-time high, but our moral authority around the world is at an all-time low. That's wrong and that's dangerous. As President, I will not rest until America is both the strongest nation on earth and the most respected. Americans have never failed the cause of human freedom, and we will not fail it now-not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not anywhere.

There is something else this administration just doesn't understand: we can't be strong in the world if we're not strong at home.

Throughout our history, the middle class has been the moral and economic backbone of this nation. That's why Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill to help people go to college, buy a house, and build their wealth. Under Bill Clinton, we created 23 million new jobs, lifted 7 million Americans out of poverty, and sent millions more Americans 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 four years, this administration has ignored middle-class interests and walked away from those middle-class values. 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.

The result? The people who do the work are earning the smallest share of the reward on record. Profits have reached near-record levels, but workers are suffering from a $172 billion wage deficit - the gap between what wages are today and what they would be if they had risen with the economy at the rate they have in the past. That translates into $1,600 a year in lost wages for each household. In America, a rising tide is supposed to lift all boats - but in the Bush tide, the middle-class boat is taking on water.

I will put the economy and government back in line with our values. We'll create 10 million jobs so Americans have the chance to work and get ahead when they do. We'll cut taxes for businesses that do right by America and reward companies for creating jobs here instead of for moving jobs overseas. I believe the private sector is the engine of economic growth, and our party cannot love jobs and hate the businesses that create them.

Responsibility must begin in Washington, not end there. We'll stop pretending Washington can live beyond its means and stop making it harder for states to live within theirs. To borrow a line from a certain Halliburton executive back in 2000, whose name escapes me at the moment: "Help is on the way."

And it's never been needed more. Our budget is a mess again and we have to fix it again. 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.

This administration has given us the worst of all fiscal worlds- a bigger government that does less and spends more. We've had enough of an administration that has grown the government and shrunk the middle class. The middle-class share of the tax burden has gone up, while incomes have gone down. They are working harder, earning less, and paying more for health care and college and taxes. 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 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 administration, 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.

On all these issues, we must keep faith with America's middle class by offering a new era of real reforms with real results. I've fought for reform throughout my career.

I took what I had learned as a prosecutor, and together with Bruce Reed and others, fought to put 100,000 cops on the street. We changed the way we fight crime in America - and helped cut violent crime by a third.

When our 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 single-parent poverty 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.

For years, we've fought for education reform because education is the key to opportunity in America. This President hasn't kept up Washington's end of the bargain. I will keep the promise of education reform by investing more in our public schools and going much further to make sure we get results from them. Earlier this week, I proposed a plan to close the Bush loophole that leaves dropouts at record levels behind. Under my plan, we'll help a minimum of one million more students graduate over the next five years.

Yesterday, I proposed the most far-reaching reforms in teacher pay in our nation's history. I'm offering a new bargain for America's teachers that asks more and rewards them more. If we're going to close the opportunity gap, we have to close the teacher gap, by rewarding good teachers who agree to teach in the places and subjects where we need them most. Instead of starving reform, we'll reward schools and teachers for turning our toughest schools around. Half a century has passed since Brown v. Board of Education. Under my plan, we'll finally be able to insist on a good teacher in every classroom and reward the great teachers who are there today.

My college 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. Next week, I'll say more about the steps we must take to reform health care. Putting more money into the health care system won't do any good if we don't reform it to get costs under control - which is exactly what my plan does. I will cut waste and abuse out of our health care system by giving incentives for smarter, more efficient systems.

Finally, we'll reform our political system and renew our democracy by putting country before party again. The president was right to promise to change the tone in Washington, but four years later we need a new tone more than ever. The reason you've all done so well back home is that you understand what the President forgot: If you want to be a reformer with results, you have to be a uniter, not a divider. Like Franklin Roosevelt, I believe the best test is not whether an idea is Republican or Democrat, but whether it will work. We can't tackle our biggest challenges unless we find ways for leaders in both parties to work together.

More than ever, Americans are desperate for us to leave the petty and the partisan behind, and reach for America's higher promise. And the reason is simple: America is more than a piece of geography-more than a name of a country; it is the most powerful idea in human history, freedom and equal opportunity for all. And that idea demands a solemn responsibility from every citizen-that we do all that we can to help realize the promise of America.

I am running for President to renew that idea and spirit again. With God's blessing, America will stand as strong and reach as high as we're willing to ask of ourselves and hold ourselves accountable. Thank you.

John F. Kerry, Remarks to the Democratic Leadership Council Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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