Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Unity '98 Dinner

October 01, 1998

Thank you very much. I thought the Vice President was a nonviolent man. [Laughter] It's not our friends we're trying to unseat. [Laughter] It's just like practice; it's like a scrimmage, you know.

Well, first of all, thank you all for being here. This has been a very successful night. And I want to thank Nancy and Bob and Steve and everybody who worked on these Unity events; it's been a very good thing. Terry McAuliffe was laughing at me the other day. He said, "When we talk about these Unity events, everybody loves it because they think that they're not going to get hit from three different places as we move toward election. But then they get into it, and they find out they get hit three different times from the same committee." [Laughter] There's groaning in some places. But I thank you for supporting it. This is very, very important.

I thank you, Senator Breaux, for coming. Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for that great, great speech and reviewing the issues that are involved.

I want to just back up a minute, and I won't keep you long because the Vice President has clearly laid out what our case is about how the last year has been spent and what we believe the issues are. But I had the opportunity—I know Len—maybe some of the others, if you were there—Hillary has helped us put together a conference at New York University to coincide with the opening of the United Nations the other day. And the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, came. The Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, came. The President of Bulgaria came. And we talked about how many people around the world seemed to be voting for the approach that was embodied in the campaign that the Vice President and I ran in 1992 and 1996, based on some ideas that had been developed really in my own experience as a Governor nearly a decade before that. But I think it's important that we look at that, because this whole—this so-called Third Way— that's the new buzzword—basically struck me as nothing more than a commonsense application of old-fashioned Democratic and American values to the challenges of the moment.

It seemed to me, for example, that it was fruitless to have a Government in Washington that cursed the deficit and ran it up every year. I sort of came from a tradition that said we should talk less and do more. It seemed to me to be fruitless to talk about doing something about crime, and all that was ever done is more penalties were put on, but nobody ever did anything about prevention. No one ever listened to the police officers. No one ever did anything.

It seemed to me fruitless to have the same debate every time—Bob Torricelli mentioned this—between the environment and the economy. Obviously, the two have to be reconciled and both have to advance in lockstep; otherwise, we're sunk. And all you have to do is carry the argument that the other side always makes that there is an inevitable conflict always and forever between the environment and the economy to its logical extension, and we're sunk. Whichever rail you decide to ride, you run off the end of the mountain.

So we came up with this notion that there really was a way of going beyond the old fights that had dominated the 1980's, that we could reduce the deficit and ultimately balance the budget and still invest more in our children, in our health care system, in research, and in the future; that we could fight crime, and we could punish people who commit crime, but we could also do more with prevention; that we could improve the economy and improve the environment; that we could have a smaller Government that actually does more and works better and is more active—you know all the basic ideas we advanced—that we could respect individuality in this country and still say we ought to be coming together more across the lines that divide us, we ought to recognize what we have in common is more important.

And after 6 years, the truth is those ideas work pretty well. And now they're being embraced around the world, people trying to break out of the sort of ideological battlegrounds that gave high rhetorical content but low results. And it is deeply moving to me. And I think the fact that it works has been deeply frustrating to some of our political opponents.

But that's the first thing I'd like to say. I'm not up here to take credit for all that. I spent a lot of time—it was an advantage to me, frankly, during the 1980's to be working in public life outside Washington, because I got to see as an observer the shape of the political debate and to see how often our Democrats were unfairly treated by the voters because they didn't know what our people in Congress were doing because of the way the debate got beamed out to them.

For example, it might surprise you to know that every single year except one in the 12 years before I became President, the Democratic Congress that got all the credit from the other side for running the deficit up actually spent slightly less money than the Republican President asked them to spend—just one little fact that almost never got out there because we often lost the rhetorical war.

So what I tried to do is to lower the rhetoric, focus it on specific achievements, and find a way to bring people together. Now, one of the great failures of my administration is, I have not succeeded in reducing partisanship in Washington. But Lord knows I have tried—I have tried. And when we have been able to work together, the results have been pretty good. We had to have some Republicans to support our crime bill, although it was mostly a Democratic crime bill, and it's hard to quarrel with the results. We had a bipartisan balanced budget agreement. They got the tax cut they wanted; we supported the tax cut in the shape that it was in, but we also got the biggest increase in health care for children in 35 years and the biggest increase in aid to people going to college since the GI bill.

So we have tried to work together. And when we have done it, that's been good. When they haven't done it and we've been able to prevail, the results have been good. But I want to say to you today is, we cannot afford the luxury of thinking that just because we have the first balanced budget in 29 years and this $70 billion surplus and the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years and the lowest percentage of people on welfare in 29 years and the lowest inflation in 32 years and the smallest Government in 35 years and all the other statistics you know, we can't afford to say, "Isn't this wonderful. Now let's go back and have a mud fight again."

We have to keep at the business of building America's future. We have to make real all those ideas that Bob Torricelli talked about that were advanced early on by the Vice President. And all you've got to do is just watch, every day, watch the financial developments every day in the world and see how sometimes we react to them in America—sometimes the market drops; sometimes it goes up, but you see what's going on here—to realize this is a very dynamic time and that the peace of change has actually accelerated in the last 6 years, so that the approach that we had—forget about the specific issues— the approach we had was clearly the right one.

I got a letter from a friend of mine the other day who is a writer. He's a very eloquent man, and he wrote me this sort of blunt letter with no adjectives in it. He said, "Peace and prosperity is not a bad legacy. I think one reason your administration has advanced is, it looks to me like all of you get up and go to work every day." Sort of a blunt letter, but there's something to be said for that.

One of the things I'm proudest of is that the people that work in our administration and the people we work with in the Congress, they do a phenomenal job of putting their egos aside and working as a team and really working through these things. A lot of this stuff is just hard work, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of concentration. And I'm here to tell you, if you like the results of the last 6 years, there needs to be a resounding message coming out of these congressional elections that that is what we think Washington should be about. Because, make no mistake about it, if you want to see these surpluses continue, if you want to see us deal with these big challenges, we have got to know the American people expect that of us. That has got to be what people see.

And it's hard for people, because we're so far away from them here, and there's so many layers between us and the people running all the small businesses in Spokane and Sacramento and Albuquerque and all the places in between, that it's easy to think that these word battles are what matter. But it's not. It's the results. It's the direction, the ideas, the implementation of the ideas, the constant, constant pressing to meet the challenges of the moment.

This international—let's start with that—this international financial crisis that we see gripping Asia, gripping Russia, echoing across in Latin America, being felt to some extent in our stock market here, this is a new but inevitable and thoroughly predictable phenomenon of the fact that, first, we built the global trading system in goods that got more and more integrated, then a global trading system in services; and the more goods and services you had to have, the more it was necessary that money roll around the world relatively unimpeded. And the institutions that we developed over the last 50 years were not fully sensitive and flexible enough to deal with all those challenges at once, plus whatever was going on or not going on within all these countries that are trying to move from either communist countries to free market countries or developing countries to a more developed status. Some of this stuff was bound to happen.

Now, what is the answer? No one has the whole answer, but I promise you this: It will not be solved by word games. It will be solved by work, by ideas, by real people thinking about real problems and working in a sustained way.

Four years ago—4 years ago—I got the leaders of the G-7 to begin working on this because I knew it was going to take years to figure out what modifications would be required to deal with this challenge. For one year, the finance ministers of 22 countries have been working on specific recommendations. They'll be here Monday, and we'll have thousands of people here Tuesday for the opening of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund conference. Now, who'd have ever thought that would be an election and a congressional race in Nebraska? But it is. Whether we pay our fair share to the International Monetary Fund will determine, number one, whether they've got the money to deal with these crises which directly affect our economy; and number two, whether we can continue to lead the world in resolving them.

All the ideas in the world coming out of America won't amount to a hill of beans if America is not willing to carry its own load. Now, I said this in January. It is now October, and we still don't have it. And there are a lot of problems in the world. And if the American people like this economic recovery we have and they want it to go on, then we must recognize that 30 percent of it came from trade, and our ability to be strong and to lead the world depends upon our doing our part. That's a big issue in this election.

We believe—the Vice President and I ran on a platform that caused a lot of ripples. We said, "Look, we're for more global trade, and we're going to open more markets, but we believe we have to protect the working people of America and the working people of other countries. We believe we have to protect the environment of America and the environment of other countries. We believe we have to put a human face on the global trading system."

Now the financial challenges threaten to undermine the material benefits that people believe they get from it. If you believe in this, if you like the growth that America has had the last 6 years, if you believe that other people have a right to be rewarded for their labors around the world and you want us to continue to grow like this, this is a huge issue. And you know it's hard to turn it into a 5-second slogan and put it on a bumper sticker, but it has a lot to do with how your kids are going to live in the 21st century.

Same thing with this Social Security issue. I know it's popular to offer a tax cut 5 weeks before the election, say, "We finally got a surplus; we want to give you some of it." But it's dead wrong. After Social Security—I'm sorry Senator Breaux had to leave, because he's the chairman of our Medicare commission. No serious person believes that we can have a good society unless we take care of the elderly when it comes to baseline income and health care. And no serious person who has looked at it believes that the present system can do that when the baby boomers retire unless we make modifications. And if we start now and do things that are modest but disciplined, we can have a good society. That's what that surplus ought to be used for. We ought not to spend one red cent until we know we've taken care of Social Security for the 21st century. That's a huge issue, and it's more important than an election-year tax cut.

Those are big changes. And it may not be a bumper sticker, although "Social Security First" is pretty close. But if you're worried about how your kids are going to live in the 21st century and you're like me, you're a baby boomer that's plagued by the thought that we might reduce the standard of living of our children and our grandchildren because we didn't take care of this problem when we had the chance, then that's a big issue.

This education issue, you should have seen it; we must have had 60 Democratic Senators and Congressmen today on the South Lawn of the White House. The Vice President mentioned it. All we said was, "Look, for 8 months, 9 months now, we have had an education program up there, and you haven't let us bring it to the floor. Just give us one day. Don't you think our kids' education is worth one day?"

And in our balanced budget there is money for 100,000 teachers that takes average class size down to 18 in the first 3 grades in this country; there is a tax program that will help us to build or repair 5,000 schools. The Vice President and I could keep you here until dawn talking about the schools we have visited with all the housetrailers out back or the beautiful old buildings that have broken windows and whole floors closed down. We say our children are the most important things in the world to us. We're not acting like it.

Or our plan to pay for college education for 35,000 young people if they will go back and pay the education off by teaching in the most educationally underserved areas. Or our plan to make—Bob Torricelli said that the Vice President understood cyberspace before anybody else, coining the phrase "information superhighway." We want to hook every classroom in America up to it. We don't think—now that we know what it does, we think it is morally unacceptable to let the benefits of the information explosion be experienced by anything other than all of our children. Now, that's what's in there—that's what's in there.

And let me just say one other thing—we've got programs in there for after-school care, for summer school care. All these kids—we keep saying we want to end social promotion. We started that, our party did; we don't believe anybody should be promoted every year, year-in and year-out, whether they know anything or not. But we don't believe children should be dubbed failures because the system is failing them. And that's why we think these after-school programs, these summer school programs, these tutoring programs, are so important. This is a big deal. I don't know if you can put it on a bumper sticker or not, but I know this: It's going to have a lot more to do with how our kids live in the 21st century than a lot of what goes on around here.

The Patients' Bill of Rights symbolizes our continuing challenge to make health care affordable and quality for all Americans. It won't solve all the problems, but it will deal with the fact that 160 million Americans are in managed care. Forty-three managed care companies are supporting this bill because they're out there doing their best to take care of their patients, the people that subscribe to them, and they're at an economic disadvantage because others don't do it.

So these issues are big issues. And what I want to say to you is, if this were a normal election—that is, if this were a Presidential election year—we would be looking at a rout. Why? Because the American people agree with what we've done; they agree with the approach we've taken; they agree with us on these issues; and because in a Presidential year our candidates are guaranteed a national forum, and everybody hears everything through at least the megaphone of the debate in the Presidential race.

In an off-year the financial advantage that the other party always enjoys is dramatically magnified and normally reinforced by a lower turnout among baseline voters who normally vote with us, because our folks don't make as much money, have more child care problems, have more transportation problems, have more other hassles in their life. It's a bigger effort for them to vote.

That's why we did the Unity thing. That's why you're so important. The only thing I can tell you when you go out of here is that you cannot let this be your last effort. Every one of you has some network through which you can exercise your influence to try to get people to understand that this is a hugely important election and they must show up and be counted. If you believe in Social Security first, if you believe in America taking the lead in the international financial challenges, if you believe in education being our top investment priority, if you believe in the Patients' Bill of Rights, if you believe we should improve the environment, not weaken it, if you believe in these things, then you have got to help us for the next 5 weeks.

We can win a stunning, unprecedented, historically, literally unprecedented victory if only the people understand what the issues are, where the parties stand, where the candidates stand. But we have to push back the veil here and get people to think about their children and their future and understand that the people that have asked you to give this money are committed to it. If these ideas have worked for the last six years, they'll work just fine for the next 2 and for the next 20, if we're given the chance to implement them.

Thank you, and God bless you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 9:53 p.m. in the ballroom at the Sheraton Luxury Collection Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Representative Nancy Pelosi; Senator Robert G. Torricelli; Terence McAuliffe, former national finance chair, Steve Grossman, national chair, and Leonard Barrack, national finance chair, Democratic National Committee; and President Petar Stoyanov of Bulgaria.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Unity '98 Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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