Remarks at the Democratic Leadership Council Gala
The President. Thank you very much. Thank you, Congressman McCurdy. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Congressman McCurdy. Hillary and I are delighted to be here. I was so glad when Michael Steinhardt and Al From and Will Marshall came up on the stage. I thought we were occupying the right wing all by ourselves here tonight. [Laughter] I want to—it'll get funnier as you think about it. [Laughter] I want to thank everybody on this stage, my wonderful and longtime friend Lindy Boggs, who had me in her home in the Presidential campaign and who has been such great inspiration to us. And I thank Senator Lieberman and Senator Breaux for whatever they said they were doing, their kosher-Cajun partnership. [Laughter] They have been wonderful.
I thank Dave McCurdy for the courageous battle that he waged in Oklahoma against some forces that I want to talk about more in a moment and for going to New Hampshire for me and for being the embodiment of what the DLC is all about. He is very young. I have lost two elections; I will make a prediction about which I know quite a bit: He will be back.
I want to thank my friend of many years, Senator Chuck Robb, for waging what may have been the most courageous campaign in America. Twenty million dollars and all they could throw at him later, he's still standing and well and proud, and we're proud of him. I want to thank Al From and Will Marshall and Michael Steinhardt for believing in the DLC and the PPI, for believing in the power of ideas in public life.
You know, I was trying to think of what I ought to say here tonight. I've gotten all these good and bad and in-the-middle reports about all these deliberations here. They gave me some remarks at the office. I didn't like them, so I wrote some down; so no one is to blame for what I say but me. But the problem is I'm hurtling into middle age, and I can no longer read my own writing from this distance. [Laughter] But I'm going to do the best I can.
Audience member. Do you want my glasses?
The President. I've heard all these—no, I brought my glasses, but I'm too vain to wear them while I talk. [Laughter]
I got to thinking about, you know, how I could describe this election, and was it one of these situations where, well, they just didn't know what we'd done; they didn't recognize what we'd done—the Democrats. There's some of that.
It reminded me of the story of the fellow that ran a cleaners in New York City for 40 years. And his wife passed away, and his children were all grown and educated, so he just cashed in. He had a million dollars. He went out and had a hair transplant, joined a spa and lost 30 pounds, married a lady 40 years younger than he was, and went to Florida on his honeymoon, where a storm came up when he was walking on the beach, lightning struck him dead, and he was taken to heaven immediately. And he looked in the face of God, and he said, "I don't want to be blasphemous, but how could you do this to me? I mean, for 40 years I was faithful to my family. I educated all my children. I worked 6 days a week. I paid every nickel I ever owed in taxes. Finally, I have a chance to have a little fun. How could you do this to me?" And God said, "Oh, Jake, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you." [Laughter]
So maybe, you know, there was a little bit of that in this election. Then I thought, well, maybe what we did was good, but they just didn't appreciate it. And I thought about the story of the elderly couple rocking on the porch. And they were way up in their seventies, and they'd been married over 50 years. The husband was a man of few words, and he looked at his wife and he said, "Sarah, you know, before we run out of time, there are some things I have never said to you in our married life together, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't. We got married, and I didn't have a nickel to my name. And we worked hard. But the Great Depression came along, and as soon as I built my business, it broke me, and I was absolutely devastated. But you never flinched, and you never left me. You were so wonderful." And she said, "Yeah, that's right." He said, "Then I had to go to World War II, and I got that terrible wound. It took me a year to recuperate, but you were there by my side every step of the way." And she said, "Yeah." He said, "Then, finally in 1952, we finally saved up enough money to move in our own home. We weren't there 6 weeks before a tornado came along and blew it down. We didn't have any insurance or anything. It took us another 10 years to get a house, but you stayed with me all the way through." She said, "Yeah, I sure did." He said, "Well, before it's too late, I want to say one thing to you. Sarah, you're bad luck." [Laughter]
Well, there was also some real things. I want to talk about them. But since one of their leaders was quoting Roosevelt the other day, I ought to say, I think we're a lot more like Lincoln than they are like Roosevelt. And it reminded me of when Lincoln sustained a defeat, he said that it hurt too much to laugh and he was too old to cry, but it was a slip and not a fall. And what I want to talk to you tonight about is what's really going on in this country, not about the Democrats and the Republicans and who loses and who wins, but who loses and who wins out in America.
In 1992, late '91 really, I got into the race for President basically because I was convinced deep down inside that there was something amiss in this country, that we were in danger of losing the American dream, that more people were working harder for less, that people who were poor but wanted to work themselves into the middle class weren't able to do so, that we were coming apart when we ought to be coming together, and that the political system had reached the point where it was almost incapable of dealing with fundamental problems. I ran out of a conviction that as a citizen I ought to try to do something about it. I ran because my experience as a Governor made me believe that you really could roll up your sleeves and reach across party lines and other lines and solve real problems that real people have. I ran because the DLC made me believe that ideas could matter in national politics just like they do in other forms of public endeavor.
And when I started this campaign, nobody but my mother gave me much chance to win. But you know, what I was afraid of was that I would win and people wouldn't understand how hard it would be to really change, not only to change things on their merits but to deal with the culture of Washington and to communicate through the fog and the blizzard to folks out in the country and also to have communication be two-way, never to lose touch with people, never to sever that mystic cord that has to exist between a President and a Government and the people.
I knew that there were many dangers. One is, just taking on tough issues is taking on tough issues. If they were easy issues, somebody else would have done them because a poll would say it was popular to do. The second is if you try to do a lot of things in a short time, you're going to make some mistakes. And I've made my fair share, and I accept that. The third is that it is easy to be misunderstood in a difficult time when you're a long way from where people live. Ask Mr. McCurdy and Senator Robb. It's even easy to be demonized when you're a long way from where people live so that the very people you try hardest to help are those who turn away.
That's the thing I regret about this election more than anything else. All the people who are working harder for lower wages and less security then they were 10 years ago, they're the people I ran to help. All the people who are trying to follow the rules and are sick and tired of people benefiting who don't, who take advantage of the system whether they're rich or poor or somewhere in between, those are the folks that the Democratic Party ought to be championing and the ones who ultimately will benefit if we stay on the right course.
Well, we did a lot of things that they didn't like very much, especially after it got explained to them, as we say at home. I think I was right when I opposed discrimination and intolerance, but a lot of folks thought I was just more concerned about minorities than the problems for the majority.
I believe we were right when we stood up to the NRA and said we ought to take these military assault weapons off the street. But a long way from the battlegrounds of the inner cities, a lot of folks out in the country said, "My Lord, I'm paying too much in taxes, I can't hold my job, and now they're coming after my gun. Why won't they just let me alone?"
I believe we were right when we fought to bring this terrible deficit down. Let me tell you something, folks. The budget would be in balance this year, were it not for interest payments on the debt accumulated when they had control and they ran this country into the ditch. And before you listen to the siren's songs that will be offered in the next year, you just remember this: Next time you make out your Federal income tax check, 28 percent of it is going to pay interest on the debt accumulated in the last 12 years before we took over. So I think we were right to do that.
And yes, I think we were right to try to find a way to stop health care costs from going up at 3 times the rate of inflation, to stop people from losing their health care or having it explode if they have a kid sick or if they change jobs, to try to find an affordable way for small business people and self-employed people to buy private health insurance. But by the time it got to the American people, in both cases, it was characterized as the Democrats are the party of Government and taxes. And they don't have a lot of trust or faith in Government because they're working harder for less, less money. Males in this country without a college degree are making 12 percent less than they were making 10 years ago working a longer work week. We are the only country in the world with an advanced economy where the percentage of people with health insurance under 65 is lower today than it was 10 years ago.
That's why these numbers don't mean a lot. That's why the story I told you about John and Martha don't mean a lot. That may be a good story. Sometimes you're not happy even if somebody does something good, if you don't like the result. There are still people out there just killing themselves, thinking, "I'm doing everything I can. I'm working a longer work week. I can't afford a vacation anymore. I'm paying more for health care. I may lose my job tomorrow. My kid could get shot on the way to school. And all my money is going to people who misbehave." Now, that's what a lot of people think. And they're the very people that I've been up here killing myself for 2 years trying to help and the people they've been trying to help. Can we get them back? You bet we can. But they have to know we heard the lesson in the election. They have to know we got the message. But we cannot tell them we will always agree. We cannot tell them we will always agree. And we cannot tell them, even if the cost is very great.
Sometimes people make decisions when they are very, very angry, and sometimes those decisions are good. Sometimes they're not so good. One of the first lessons I was ever given at my mama's knee was, "Count to 10, Bill, before you say something." I still don't do it all the time, and every time I don't, I'm sorry. [Laughter] Every time I don't, I'm sorry.
There is no prescription for a perfect world in a difficult time of change where every election works out and everybody is happy. But we've got to let these folks know that we heard them, because they're the very people that I ran for President to help. Now, all my life, ever since I was a little boy, I have seen people like that mistreated, disadvantaged, and then I have seen them inflamed with anger and enraged and taken advantage of. So I'm telling you, forget about us. We owe it to them to let them know we heard and we're fighting for them and we're going to deliver.
I've got three things that I want to say. I think we've got to reaffirm our convictions with clarity. We've got to say what we did and be proud of it. And we've got to engage the Republicans in a spirit of genuine partnership and say, "You have some new ideas. We do, too. Let's have a contest of ideas. But stop all this demonization and get on with the business of helping America to build this country."
Sometime in the next 2 or 3 days, if you want to know how to state our principles with clarity, go back and read the New Orleans Declaration, 5 years ago. It's just as good as it gets:
We believe the promise of America is equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. The Democratic Party's fundamental mission is to expand opportunity, not Government. America must remain energetically engaged in the world, not retreat from it. The United States must maintain a strong and capable defense. The right way to rebuild America's economic security is to invest in our people and to expand trade, not to restrict it. We believe in preventing crime and punishing criminals, not explaining away their behavior. The purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence. Government should respect individual liberty and stay out of our private lives and personal decisions. We believe in the moral and cultural values most Americans share, individual responsibility, tolerance, work, faith, and family. We believe American citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights. And we mean to ask our citizens to give something back to their communities and their country.
I believe that, and if you do, we've got a great future.
Now, this is what I want to say to you: You have to decide what your mission is in this new world, because the truth is we are already making a difference in the new Democratic Party. In the last 2 years, despite the atmosphere of contentiousness and all the difficulty, more of the DLC agenda was enacted into law and will make a difference in the lives of the American people than almost any political movement in any similar time period in the history of the United States. And you ought to be proud of that.
You should not ask for a medal and we shouldn't ask for a medal because wages are still stagnant and the future is still too uncertain for too many millions of Americans, because the country is still coming apart at the seams in many places because of family breakdown and crime, and because Government is still too much of a burden on a lot of people. But you sure ought to be proud of the start that has been made.
And if you don't tell it, nobody else will. So stand up and say, "Here is what we have done. We're going to build on it. We're going to go forward. We heard the message in the election, but let's don't tear down what has been done that's good for the people who control the future of this country."
You go back and read, go back and read what the DLC specifically advocated. Principles are fine, but sooner or later you've got to do something, too. It really does matter, you know. One of the great political thinkers who is here in this audience tonight, whom I will not embarrass, said to me, "You know, one of the problems, Mr. President, is you've been trying to do something." And he told me, he mentioned another political leader, and he said, "You know, his popularity is very great in this country because he has talked a lot, but he hasn't tried to do anything, so he hasn't upset anybody very much."
We have tried to do things. You should be proud of that. It was not easy to bring the deficit down 3 years in a row for the first time since Truman. The DLC said we ought to do it, and we did it. It was not easy.
It was not easy to figure out how to do that and provide tax reductions—the first step in the middle-class tax relief—to 15 million working families with 40 million Americans in it, people who work hard, have children at the house, are on modest wages. We don't want them to go into welfare. We want them to be out. We don't want to tax anyone into poverty. That's what the earned-income tax credit was. That was a DLC idea. We did it. It provided more tax fairness than at any time in 20 years, and you should be proud of it. It changed people's lives.
They talk about less Government. There are 70,000 fewer people working for the Federal Government today than there were on the day I was inaugurated. We are reducing the size of the Federal Government by more than a quarter of a million. If not one other thing is done, because of what the Members of Congress here present have already voted for, we will have the smallest Federal Government since John Kennedy was President at the end of this budget cycle. That is what we have already done. The Republicans want to do more? Come on, let's do it. Let's have a partnership. Let's have a contest. Let's have at it. We're not through reducing Government, but don't deny the fact that we have started it. We led the way. They didn't begin it; we did. Ask them to join us. Let's go forward.
And a dramatic thing happened that Mr. McCurdy mentioned a minute ago: The Democratic Party moved away markedly from protectionism, into GATT, into NAFTA, into reaching out to the Asian countries, into this Summit of the Americas with all the countries in our region that are democracies. We did that. It was a fundamental break with the past, and it is opening up new vistas of opportunity. And we did it for one simple reason. All the pressures we have to keep wages down and to displace low-wage workers from trade are there no matter what we do. But because we demanded access to markets and a fairer deal for American workers and for American companies, we're going to create new high-wage jobs for America. That was the DLC position. We have done it: more trade advancement than at any time in a generation. You ought to be proud of it, and you ought to stand up there and defend it and talk about it.
And what are the results? Over 5 million new jobs, more construction jobs this year than the last 9 years combined, 11 months of manufacturing job growth rate for the first time in a decade. Those are the results.
And finally, we're beginning to see some highwage job growth, more high-wage jobs this year than the previous 5 years combined. What is the challenge? How to get incomes up and how to help people when they change jobs not be riven with insecurity. That is the challenge.
So, how are we going to do that? The first thing we've got to do is to provide a system of lifetime education and training. You want to reverse income inequality in this country? There is an education premium, and we had better give it to every American who's willing to take it. That is the only way to do it.
Look at the education agenda, the best year for education in 30 years: expanded Head Start; national standards with grassroots reforms, like charter schools and character education programs, advocated by the DLC; apprenticeship programs for young people who don't go to college. I had 13 CEO's of the biggest companies in this country today into the White House to talk to me about how we could get all the companies in the country to participate in our school-to-work program; how we can get 2 million more young people, getting out of high school and not going on to college, getting decent jobs. And the middle class college loan program that we had to face down enormous vested interests to pass, making millions of young people eligible for lower interest college loans and able to pay it back as a percentage of their income so that nobody need walk away from college. That was all DLC advocacy. We did it. The American people should know it, and you should be proud of it.
The family leave law, immunizing all the kids in this country under 2, tougher child support enforcement, the welfare reform bill that's been in the Congress since last March, these things are good for America. This administration has also tried to give power back to the States, something the GLC has always been for. Twenty States, 20, have already received permission to cut through Federal rules and regulations to have their own welfare reform proposals; 9 States, health care reform proposals. These are things you have advocated that we've already done.
The Republicans say they want to give more power back to the States, more power back to the cities. Tell them to come on. Let's contest their ideas. Let's do it. Let's do it together. But don't you walk away from the fact that we started it, and we intend to finish it, and we want them to go with us.
And we still have to implement that crime bill, folks. A hundred thousand police means that cities will get an average—and small towns and rural areas—of 20 percent more police. We know if they're deployed properly, that it will lower the crime rate. Community policing, a DLC idea; we've been advocating it for years. And we believe in the prevention programs; read our record. They don't. We're right. The police are on our side. Let's fight to save those prevention programs. Let's get those police in place. Let's have the tougher punishment. If they have more ideas on crime, let's have at it. But let's not stop implementing the crime bill until we lower the crime rate and make streets safe for American families and their children again. And don't forget that we passed it.
Finally, let me say that I want you to see national service as the embodiment of what we want to do. It has been attacked by some who are coming into this new Congress. It is not a Government program. It's a corporation with Republicans and Democrats on the board. It is not a bureaucracy. It's totally grassroots oriented. It is designed to promote the concept of service in America and to reward it with educational credits. There are already more people in national service solving the problems of America at the grassroots level than there were in the Peace Corps in its largest year. There are 20,000 this year. Year after next, if by cutting and investing we can get the money, we will have 100,000. So let us say, that's where we are. That's where the new Democratic Party is. That's where the DLC is. Let's ask the Republicans to support national service, not to tear it up, to go forward to build this country and make it what it ought to be.
The best thing you could do is what you have done, put out 10 new ideas as a counterpoint to the Republican contract. That is the best thing you can do. Let's stand on them. Let's fight for those ideas.
Next week and the week after, I'll be announcing some more of my new ideas. Let's do this with vision. Let's do it with conviction. Let's make the effort it takes. Let's put country over party and challenge the Republicans to do the same. Let's say we do not want to roll back the gains that the DLC fought so hard for. They're not liberal or conservative. They brought our party together. They'll bring our country together. And the more the American people know about it, the better they will like it. The answer is not to reverse what we have done but to build on it. The answer is to reach out to the middle class and say, "We know why you're angry. We know why you're frustrated. We got the message of the election. We're not going back on our principles, but we're coming right at you because we are hired to help you build a better future for yourselves. That is our only purpose." If we do these things, their predictions of our demise will be entirely premature.
But I ask you now, once again, to think about what your responsibility is. We always talk about what other people's responsibilities are. What's your responsibility? It's to join me in the arena, not in the peanut gallery, in the arena, and fight and roll up your sleeves and be willing to make a mistake now and then and be willing to put your shoulder to the wheel, be willing to engage, be willing to struggle, be willing to debate, and enjoy this.
The American people are going through a great period of change. But let me tell you something, folks, this is a very great country. We can stand this conflict. This can be good for us. It can be good for our party, but more importantly, it can be good for the American people. Never forget that it is no accident that it was the United States that was asked to be involved in putting an end to all this conflict that's gone on for centuries in Northern Ireland, the United States that was asked to stand up to aggression in the Gulf or work on peace in the Middle East or restore democracy to Haiti. We are committed to the rest of the world, but we should see ourselves sometimes a little more the way they see us. This is a very great country.
The responsibility we have is not to win elections, it is to fight for the people about whom elections are fought. If we fight for them and their children, then the elections will take care of themselves. And if they don't, we'll still be doing what's right. That's my commitment, and it ought to be yours.
Thank you, and God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 8:26 p.m. in the Green Room at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Michael Steinhardt, chairman, and Will Marshall, president, Progressive Policy Institute; Al From, president, Democratic Leadership Council; and former Representative Lindy Boggs.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the Democratic Leadership Council Gala Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/218889