What Democrats Should Fight For:

Principle is the Best Politics

Address of Senator Edward Kennedy at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., January 11, 1995.

I come here as a Democrat. I reject such qualifiers as New Democrat or Old Democrat or Neo-Democrat. I am committed to the enduring principles of the Democratic Party, and I am proud of its great tradition of service to the people who are the heart and strength of this nation -- working families and the middle class.

I would have lost in Massachusetts if I had done what Democrats who were defeated in other parts of the country too often tried to do.

I was behind in mid-September. But I believe I won because I ran for health reform, not away from it. I ran for a minimum wage increase, not against it. I continued to talk about issues like jobs, aid to education, and job training. And I attacked Republican proposals to tilt the tax code to the most privileged of our people.

I stood against limiting welfare benefits if a mother has another child, and I will stand against any other harsh proposals that aim at the mother but hit and hurt innocent children. I spoke out for gun control, and against reactionary Republican proposals to abandon crime prevention as a weapon in the war on crime. I rejected the Republican double standard that welcomes government as benign when it subsidizes the affluent, but condemns government as the enemy when it helps the poor.

I ran as a Democrat in belief as well as name. This turned out to be not only right in principle -- it was also the best politics.

I talked about the issues that mattered to working families, and about what I had tried to do to address their needs and concerns. I take some sense of pride and satisfaction that exit polling showed 89 percent of Massachusetts voters -- by far the highest percentage in the country -- said they had learned enough about the candidates and the issues in the Senate race to make an informed choice.

Our issues, if we defend them, are popular. The working families in New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield and Worcester in my state voted for me, and they have the same concerns as working families throughout the country.

The caricatures of us by the other side will be ineffective -- as long as we vigorously oppose them and expose them, instead of sheepishly acquiescing in them. If Democrats run for cover, if we become pale carbon copies of the opposition and try to act like Republicans, we will lose -- and deserve to lose. As I have said on other occasions, Democrats must be more than warmed-over Republicans. The last thing this country needs is two Republican parties.

If we fall for our opponents' tactics, if we listen to those who tell us to abandon health reform, or slash student loans and children's programs, or engage in a bidding war to see who can be the most anti-government or the most laissez-faire, we will have only ourselves to blame. As Democrats, we can win, but only if we stand for something.

The election last November was not a ratification of Republican solutions. By the narrowest of margins, they gained control of Congress. But less than 40 percent of eligible voters turned out on election day, and only slightly more than half of those -- about 20 percent -- cast ballots for Republicans. Some mandate!

As the current controversy over the motor voter law demonstrates, Republicans thrive by depressing voter turnout. Intensity matters for Democrats. Turnout will certainly be higher in 1996 -- fifty or sixty percent higher. We must stand our Democratic ground. We must fight for the ideals that are the very reason for our party's being. We must prove to working families and average citizens that we are on their side, fighting hard for them. If we do, then Democrats will turn out and come home in 1996. The defeat of 1994 will be history, and we will be back, stronger than ever -- not stale from the past, but renewed for the future.

But to achieve that victory, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We must make explicit to the American people our core values and beliefs which form the basis of our political philosophy and underlie our legislative proposals -- specifically and most important, that we as Americans, with all our diversity, share a common purpose, a common sense of family, neighborhood, community and country, of fairness, responsibility, and decency.

Unfortunately, we have failed in the past to make these vital and important points as clearly as we should. We Democrats have always considered family, community, faith and love of country to be core values -- the foundation upon which all of our proposals are based. But we allowed Republicans to take these values as their own. We assumed too quickly that our commitment to such values was self-evident in the proposals we made and the legislation we passed. We were wrong, and we paid a price because of it.

So let me set the record straight. Family, community, love of country, fairness, responsibility -- all of these values underlie the philosophy of the Democratic Party. And these are the values that underlie and must underlie all of our legislative proposals.

This is not to say, however, that I believe these core values should be used as a superficial rationale for bumper sticker solutions to the complex problems we face. No, these core values require us to reject simple, easy answers which may make us feel good today, but do absolutely nothing to solve these problems. Our values oblige us to address these problems in a thoughtful and productive way.

We are, without apology, the party that believes in assisting the poor and the disabled and the disadvantaged -- but not to the detriment of the hard-working middle class, which is justifiably frustrated and angry. They feel left out and left behind, because they know they are losing ground. They see the wealthiest Americans becoming wealthier. They see the poorest Americans being taken care of by society's safety net -- which their tax dollars have put in place.

Americans are angry, and rightly so. Rapid economic change and surging global competition have made many jobs and people less secure. The vast majority of Americans are working harder and making less. Yet fair reward for work has always been essential to their hope of creating better lives for their families and their children.

As Democrats, we must address that anger and frustration. But the answer is not to create larger problems by dismantling the safety net, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Such a result is not only inhumane, it is wrong and destructive to our country, our communities, and our values.

Nor is the solution to give more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans, in the hope that something will trickle down to the middle class. This country was founded on equal opportunity for all, not unequal opportunity for some.

Instead, we must be more responsive and give a greater helping hand to working families and the middle class. In this central battle for their minds and hearts, heritage and history are on our side. Recall the great victorious battles of the past -- for Social Security and Medicare, for the minimum wage and the rights of workers, for civil rights and equal rights, for protection of the environment, for a Head Start for every child and the education of all children regardless of their parents' income, for family and medical leave, for opportunity for women and a womanUs right to choose. By any standard, these were extraordinary achievements. And all of them were won because they were sought and fought for by members of the Democratic Party.

Let us not forget that many of these measures, which the American people now accept as part of our way of life, were opposed at the time by the majority of Republicans in Congress. Democrats bled -- and suffered lasting battle scars for these victories. But there are few if any Republicans who would refight them or repeal them now.

These historic victories strengthened families, strengthened communities, and brought Americans together. They reflect the fundamental dedication of the Democratic Party to a sense of progress that embraces all Americans. Our achievements remind us of our roots, inspire us to fight harder now, and give us a credibility and a vision that history denies Republicans in fighting for the future.

Surely, the challenges we face in the 1990's are no greater than those we faced in other years. People want government to be more responsive to their problems and more effective in resolving them. I'm talking about basic things that make a difference in people's lives. A strong growing economy. A clear commitment to keep the current recovery going, and to keep the deficit heading down. Good jobs and decent wages where hard work pays off in rising standards of living, not falling farther behind. Safe streets and neighborhoods. Schools that give students a good education. Child care and health care that are accessible and affordable to all. Rekindling the sense of community and patriotism, of shared values and individual responsibility, of service to others -- to neighborhoods and the nation alike.

These ideals are, have always been, and must continue to be our Democratic priorities. And we made more progress on them in the last two years than most voters ever knew on election day.

But there is no profit in endlessly regretting the denial of credit to President Clinton and the Democratic Party for a remarkable record of achievement.

One reason for the lack of credit is that the President and the Democratic Congress took on an almost unprecedented array of tough challenges, and did not win every battle. Another reason is that we live in a period of vast economic and social transformation, in which the politics of fear is easily marshaled to overrun the politics of hope.

And another reason, I am convinced, is a Republican strategy of obstruction, distortion, and massive personal attack on the President and the First Lady. In the wake of this election, Democrats need to fight back for our beliefs, not turn our back on the Clinton Administration.

Blaming Bill Clinton by some in our party comes with ill grace from those who abandoned him on critical votes in the last Congress, then ran from him in the campaign -- and then lost, often by wide margins. Now they come forward to advocate a strategy discredited by their own defeats.

My fundamental recommendation to the President is that he stay the course of change and do what he thinks is right. My advice to my fellow Democrats is that we work with the President for change -- instead of seeking to change our principles, or distance ourselves from him.

No one wants a repeat of the Republican tactic in 1994 that made the "G" in G.O.P. stand for gridlock. We must try to reach across party lines -- and build bipartisan coalitions to do the things the nation needs and deserves. This is an obligation on both sides, Republicans as well as Democrats. We must never forget that it takes two parties to be bipartisan.

I believe in free enterprise -- but I believe in active government too. A practical way to blend them both and make government more effective is through what I have called public enterprise -- using market forces wherever possible, not asking taxpayers to blindly pay for programs, but insisting that programs be genuine investments in a brighter future, and produce results commensurate with their cost.

There is no doubt that many programs are not successful. A federal program is not the solution to every problem. But there continues to be an important federal role in solving the problems of our society by investing in people and the infrastructure needed for our country to succeed and our citizens to thrive. To believe otherwise is hostile to the basic values of our country and to the historic concept of 'We the People' in our Constitution. We must not rob the people of the resource of government. It is their government, and we must make it work for them.

We do need to streamline government and make it more responsive to average Americans. But as President Clinton said last month, people want government to be lean, not mean. There is a large difference between reinventing government and rejecting it -- and an even larger difference between using government to promote the general welfare and misusing it to pander to the powerful and punish the powerless.

If we keep these truths in mind, we can find real solutions that work for health care, schools, and jobs, and achieve a rising standard of living for all. We can deal effectively with crime, welfare, race, and immigration -- instead of allowing our opponents to keep on welding grievances, anger, suspicion, and even outright bigotry into weapons of mass destruction for their next campaigns.

Democrats can win the current debate on the budget and on tax relief for the middle class. Republicans can disguise their intentions all they want. But at the heart of the Republican plan are deep reductions in Medicare and Medicaid, and lavish tax cuts that favor the wealthy -- especially their capital gains tax cut, the classic Republican tax break for the rich -- trickle down economics at its worst. That is not what the 1994 elections were about, and the Republicans and the voters know it.

We must also resist our opponents' mindless anti-government vendetta against regulation -- a rhetoric leading to an across-the-board assault on government that hides a multitude of injustices and indifferences.

Republicans wanted to get government out of the savings and loan industry in the worst way in the 1980s -- and they did. Deregulation ran amuck. The S & L mess became one of the most serious scandals in our history, costing taxpayers more than a hundred and fifty billion dollars.

So my advice to Republicans is to make sure there is water in the pool before they leap off their pro-business anti-regulation diving board. Government is there for a reason -- to help people, including the middle class.

There are mounting needs and frustrations in this land. But it will only make things worse, not better, to shred the safety net, or deregulate health and safety. Nostalgia for a past that never was is not a policy for the future.

Where do we go from here? Let me outline some key priorities that should be part of our Democratic agenda for 1995, because they are part of our strategy to strengthen and invest in the community we call America.

No issue better represents the commitment of the Democratic Party to strengthen families and communities than the drive for comprehensive health reform. It is a total misreading of the election -- and a deliberate misreading of the public will -- to conclude this issue is no longer important or urgent.

For some in Congress, with their blue chip coverage under the federal government plan, health reform may be only a political game, where points are won or lost. But to the majority of Americans, it is a continuing worsening problem, where their health, their children and their family, their financial security, and often their very lives are at stake.

The real value of the average working family paycheck has been stagnant for many years, but the share that goes for health has soared. Excessive inflation in health costs means less and less of the paycheck is available for everything else. Millions of working men and women risk losing the insurance they have, if they change or lose their job. And for too many senior citizens and persons with disabilities, the high cost of prescription drugs and long term care has broken the promise of Social Security and Medicare.

Democrats fought for health reform in the last Congress, but we did not fight well. We made serious mistakes that contributed to our failure. But I am certain that in large part we were defeated because of the cynical Republican calculation that successful health reform would benefit Democrats at the polls and thwart Republican election goals. And so they settled on a strategy of relentless obstruction.

No one can know for sure. But I believe voters would have rallied to Democrats in 1994 if we had gone down fighting as hard as we could for health reform. Instead, we engaged in a search for a phantom compromise that our opponents never intended to achieve. We allowed the great debate in Congress to end without a vote -- with a whimper, not a bang -- and we must not make that mistake again.

Now, Republicans have had their election -- and their victory. I ask them -- and challenge them -- to join us in fashioning a health bill and enacting it into law in 1995. Sit down with us for real. Get serious about coming to agreement. Bring Harry and Louise if you like -- but letUs expose special interest pleading for what it is. Shape a compromise that deals realistically with the problem, rather than treating each offer of compromise as a pretext for new demands -- which is what happened last year.

It would be nice if the Republican Contract with America contained even a hint of this simple pledge -- to give every American the same health care that the newly-elected signers of the Contract are receiving from the federal government. We are now making Congress abide by the same laws we pass for others. Why not give the American people the benefit of the same laws that Congress passes for itself?

A second major challenge, if we are serious about revitalizing our communities and investing in families and the nation's future, is reform in job education.

Today, we have scores of separate job training programs costing billions of dollars a year -- and workers are not getting their money's worth. President Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council are right to call for vouchers and greater reliance on market forces, so that workers can circumvent the bureaucracy and choose the training they want.

We must also focus more on outcomes. Too often, the path of least resistance has been to create more and more training programs -- without the follow-through to see that they succeed in actually preparing people for jobs and placing them in jobs. We must reward those that are successful -- and de-fund those that fall short.

We must do more to redress the widening gap between soaring profits and stagnant wages. We must insist that firms provide training for their workers. I make no apology for supporting a mandate in an area like this. Often, a mandate is the only practical way to assure that free enterprise is fair as well as free. Through the minimum wage, we ask business to invest in the lowest paid workers, and the time has come to ask business to invest in all workers by providing a minimum level of training.

Companies make choices. Some firms train their workers well, upgrade their skills, and offer good benefits. They treat workers as valuable resources, and still earn good profits. Other companies rely on a harsher strategy that exploits workers. They downsize. They lay off good workers. They hire part-time employees to avoid paying benefits. They cut corners on safety.

Congress should do more, not less, to encourage companies to do the right thing and prevent unfair competition from those that don't. Mandates make sense in areas like job training and health care. We must break the iron grip of a Gresham's Law of Business, in which irresponsible firms drive out firms attempting to be responsible.

A third major challenge to invest in our future and strengthen our American community relates to education. With college costs rising -- over $8,000 a year at many public universities and over $20,000 at many private colleges -- the American dream is too often an impossible dream for many families.

Let's hold the line against even one cent of Republican cuts in college aid. How dare anyone offer a Contract with America that professes allegiance to the middle class, but that would slam college doors in the face of their children. Basic values are at stake. Let's strengthen the Department of Education not abolish it. Let's oppose and defeat education cuts that would be nothing more than federal aid for ignorance.

Finally, a top priority for this Congress is reform of the lobbying and campaign finance laws. No change will do more to strengthen our American community and make greater progress possible on every other issue than breaking the stranglehold of special interest groups and restoring government that truly represents "We the People."

We must end the power of special interest money and political action committees, and take elections off the auction block. We must make lobbyists disclose what they're doing in the back rooms to subvert the public interest. It is time to end the lavish gifts, meals, entertainment and expensive trips paid for by special interests.

A sunshine law for lobbyists will pay a dividend to you in the press as well, because it will enable you to expose what really happens in the ongoing battles between the special interests and the public interest.

These are major items on a Democratic agenda for recovery in 1995. But in a larger sense, they are at the heart of a constructive and needed American agenda to restore the sense of family and community, of caring for one another, and of building a brighter future that will once again reflect this nation at its best.

In all this, we must understand that sometimes the task of a great political party is to face the tide -- not just ride with it -- and to turn it again in the direction of our deepest convictions. We will lose our way -- and our elections -- if we abandon our principles and drift with the shifting politics of the moment.

Let's renew our cause as Democrats. Let's hold our standard high and advance it proudly. Let's be who we are, and not pretend to be something else. And if we do, we will have a strong and winning case to take to the American people in this new Congress and in all the years ahead. The Republican majority will be a transient one, and Democrats will be proud to be Democrats again.

E-mail populist@usa.net

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The Progressive Populist. -- Revised September 27, 1997 --

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