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DLC | Speech | May 6, 1991
Keynote Address of Gov. Bill Clinton to the DLC's Cleveland Convention

Thank you very much. Mary Rose, thank you for that introduction. I loved listening to it, but all the while I knew that the better politician was speaking first. It is a great honor for us to be in your district and to be in Mayor White's city.

I want to again welcome all of you to this convention. The Democratic Leadership Council has had a very good year, but in a real sense, we are just beginning, for it is here with you that we are being given the chance to shape a new message for the Democratic Party, and to chart a new course for our country.

I have read, and you have read, all the people who say that the Democratic Party is dead. I read the New Republic with the cover, Democratic Coma.

Well, I want you to know that I respectfully disagree. Our DLC has over 600 Federal, State, and local elected officials, people who are brimming with ideas and energy, people who are out there on the firing line every day, actually solving problems, and somehow getting the electoral support they need to go forward.

I disagree because, even though our President is very, very popular, and we all pray for his speedy recovery, all is not well in America. We should all be justly proud of our magnificent victory in the Gulf, and we can honestly say that only America, of all the countries in the world, could have put together the political and military coalitions that made it possible.

So in that sense we are still the world's number one country. But if you look at the whole picture, it is very different, for today, as we begin another work week in America, 18 other nations will do a better job than we do of the simple task of bringing babies into the world alive.

And a dozen will do a better job of preparing their children to perform on international tests in science and math that are so critical to our future.

At least 10 will send their working men and women out to their jobs with better reading skills that are so necessary to compete in a world where what you can earn depends largely on what you can learn.

Of all the major countries in the world, we will be the only one that sends our working men and women to their jobs today with the gnawing insecurity that millions of them feel still that, if they get sick or their children get sick, they do not know how they will pay the bills, or whether they will get the care.

Of all the major industrial countries in the world, we are the only country that has no system for moving the kids who do not want to go to college into good jobs with high wages and a good future instead of dead-end jobs.

Regrettably, last year we did become number on in another category: we passed the Soviet Union and South Africa, and now we are the number one nation in the world in the percentage of people we put in prison.

Our competitors for the future are Germany and Japan. Last year they had productivity growth rates three and four times ours, because they educate their people better, they invest more in their future, and they organize their economies for global competition, and we do not.

These are facts that we have to face, but for more than a decade we have lived in a fantasy world in which it was bad form and terrible politics to admit that we had problems of this magnitude, and it was certainly out of the question for anyone in national political leadership to assume personal responsibility for doing something about them.

I hope that the number one consequence of our victory in the Persian Gulf, is that at long last we will have the national self-confidence to face up to our real problems here at home, for they are the national security issues of the future.

More important than the future of the Democratic Party, which is what is preoccupying so much of the press coverage, is the future of America. If these conditions continue, can we preserve America's leadership in the world we have done so much to make? Can we keep the American dream alive here at home? I joined the DLC to help find answers to these questions.

The 1980's glorified the pursuit of greed and self-interest, and we saw the explosion in the number of poor women and their little children. In the 1980's our competitive position eroded, but the CEO's of this country gave themselves pay raises that were four times as much as they gave their employees and three times as much as their corporate profits increased.

Middle income families' earnings declined for the first time in our memory, and not because we are a lazy people. Working class families put in more hours at work and less time with their children in 1989 than they did in 1979.

And it is not because we are overpaid. German factory workers on the average make over 20 percent more than their American counterparts. You may say, well if all these things are out there, why in the wide world haven't the Democrats been able to take advantage of these conditions?

I'll tell you why: because too many of the people that used to vote for us, the very burdened middle class we are talking about, have not trusted us in national elections to defend our national interests abroad, to put their values into our social policy at home, or to take their tax money and spend it with discipline.

We have got to turn these perceptions around, or we cannot continue as a national party. But that is not the most important issue. The most important thing is that this United States of America needs at least one political party that is not afraid to tell the people the truth and address the real needs of real human beings.

We need one political party that does not want to be the hunter or the hunted on those 30-second negative ads that have turned so many people off.

I applaud the changes of the Democratic national party in the last couple of years under the leadership of Ron Brown. He has made a real effort to reach out to the middle class.

He has made a real effort to unify all of our party, to talk to all of its people, with all of their different views, and to help people like me and our Members of Congress to get elected, often in very tough circumstances, and we have held up pretty well. But if we want to be a national party, we have a lot more to do.

We have got to have a message that touches everybody, that makes sense to everybody, that goes beyond the stale orthodoxies of left and right, one that resonates with the real concerns of ordinary Americans, with their hopes and their fears. That is what we are here in Cleveland to do.

The Republican burden is their record of denial, evasion, and neglect. But our burden is to give the people a new choice, rooted in old values, a new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them responsive government -- all because we recognize that we are a community, we are all in this together, and we are going up or down together.

Opportunity for all means first and foremost a commitment to economic growth. To do it we have to expand world trade, but we ought to demand that when we expand it, our workers get treated fairly and the global environment is enhanced, not torn apart.

Opportunity for all means more investment in emerging technologies, and more incentives to invest by U.S. companies in their own country.

Opportunity for all means, more than anything else, world-class skills, for people who live here while money and management may fly away.

Opportunity for all also means that the government ought to help the middle class as well as the poor when they need it. That is why we favored increases in the earned income tax credits for hard-pressed working Americans who are overtaxed, largely because of the $65 billion surplus in the regressive Social Security tax.

That is why we favor preschool for all children, as an opportunity for all children, as an opportunity, not a mandate. That is why we favor a national system of apprenticeships for non-college-bound young people, and national service so that everybody who wants to can get the money to go to college, if they will in turn give something back to their country, as teachers or police officers.

But opportunity for all is not enough, for if you give opportunity without insisting on responsibility, much of the money can be wasted, and the country's strength can still be sapped. So we favor responsibility for all. That is the idea behind national service. It is the idea behind welfare reform, and we urge every State to vigorously pursue it.

We should invest more money in people on welfare to give them the skills they need to succeed, and to help them with child care and with medical care for their children, but we should demand that everybody who can go to work do it, for work is the best social program this country has ever devised.

The Democrats should be the party which demands the toughest possible child support enforcement. Forty percent, 40 percent of our welfare dollars would not have to come out of the taxpayers' hides if the men who owe child support and can pay it, did it.

There is an idea abroad in the land that if you abandon your children the government will raise them. Well, I will tell you something. For 11 years now I have been providing budgets for the division of children and family services, for maternal and child health, for every conceivable program. I have done everything I could to get more money, but I will let you in on a secret -- governments do not raise children, people do, and it is time they were asked to assume their responsibilities and forced to do it if they refuse.

Responsibility for all means that students ought not to get or keep their drivers license unless they stay in school, and parents ought to have to keep them in school and ought to show up at school if the kids are in trouble. It means there is something for everybody to do, and that we Democrats recognize that we cannot move forward without investing more money in our future. But we can invest all the money in the world, and if people will not do right, it will not do what it is supposed to do.

So the Democrats should be for responsibility for all. And I believe we should be for more choices. Choice is not a code word for elitism or racism. We are living in a world, after all, when all of us want 50 or 60 channels on cable television, when people in Eastern Europe tore down the Berlin Wall because they got sick and tired of some government monopoly telling them what to do and how to live, and they knew it did not work.

In the information age, monopoly decisions handed down on high by government bureaucracies are not always the best way to go. With appropriate protections against discrimination based on race or income, we can provide our people more choices: child care vouchers, public school choice options, job training programs, choices for the elderly who used to be required, when they got a little frail, in order to get government money, to go to nursing homes, to let them have more choices, to stay independent and to stay at home.

We believe in the obligation of Democrats who believe in government to reinvent government, to make it work. We believe that we should follow the successes of our greatest corporations in eliminating middle levels of bureaucracy, pushing decisions down to the lowest possible level, empowering people, increasing accountability, and treating our citizens like they were our customers and our bosses -- because they are.

That is why we favor tenant management of housing projects, and giving principals and teachers more say in how schools are run, and neighborhood policing, where the same police ride the streets or walk the blocks day in and day out and know their neighbors and treat them like partners in the fight for safe streets.

We believe we ought to have a Federal budget which spends more money on the future and less on the present and the past, a Federal budget which ties current increases in consumption to the money that American people can afford to pay because of how much their own income increases.

And finally, let me say again, we believe in community, in repairing a torn fabric of our country at its most fragile point, the millions and millions of children who are being robbed of their childhoods, because we really are all in this together. This is a new choice Democrats can ride to victory on: opportunity, responsibility, choice, a government that works, a belief in community.

Now our new choice plainly rejects the old categories and false alternatives they impose. Is what I just said to you liberal or conservative? The truth is, it is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans' attacks and the Democrats' previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives.

Let us just take two examples. Take this fight about civil rights. The Republicans have set it up so that, if you are for the civil rights bill, you have got to be for quotas, so that if you are not for quotas we have to say you are for discrimination. It is a bogus debate. And the White House ought to be ashamed of itself for breaking up the honest attempt of the Business Roundtable and the civil rights groups in this country to have a new choice, where you can have economic growth, small business vitality, you do not wake up every day being scared to death of a lawsuit, but we protect women and minorities and people who deserve it from unfair discrimination on the job, which we all know still exists in this country.

Take the debate about poor children. The way the Republicans set the debate up, they say, well the Democrats are for throwing more money at these problems, and we know you cannot throw money at them. We just said that, and we are for family values.

Well, let me tell you something. Family values will not feed a hungry child, but you cannot raise that hungry child very well without them. We need both.

When I was a little boy, I was raised by my grandparents, with a lot of help from my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents lived out in the country in about a two-room shack up on stilts. The best room on the place was the storm cellar, which was a hole in the ground, where I used to spend the night with a coal oil lantern and snakes. And they got government commodities -- that is what we called it back then -- help from the government.

They did a heck of a job with what they had. My granddaddy ran a country store in a black neighborhood in a little town called Hope, Arkansas, and there were no food stamps, so when his black customers, who worked hard for a living, came in with no money, he gave them food anyway and just made a note of it. He knew that he was part of a community. They believed in family values. They believed in personal responsibility. But they also believed that the government had an obligation to help people who were doing the best they can.

And we made it. If you contrast that to the situation that exists in so much of America today, it is truly shocking. My wife and I were in Los Angeles a year and a half ago, in south-central L.A. in one of the drug-dominated areas, and we spent an hour and a half with a dozen sixth-graders, most of whom had never met their grandparents, could only imagine what a great-grandparent was, and one of them even told me he thought he may have to turn his own parents in for drug abuse.

And do you know what those kids were worried about? They were worried first about getting shot going to and from school, and second, they were most worried that when they turned 13 they would have to join a gang and do crack or they would get the living daylights beat out of them.

Now let me tell you something, friends. Those people do not care about the rhetoric of left and right and liberal and conservative and who is up and who is down and how we are positioned. They are real people, they have real problems, and they are crying desperately for someone who believes the purpose of government is to solve their problems and make progress, instead of posturing around and waiting for the next election.

And there are people like them all over America: A working man at home who asked me in the election, he said, Governor I believe in your education program, and I support raising taxes to pay for it, but I am doing the best I can. When will I ever do better?

A widow with four children I met in the cafi who said, I know I could go on welfare and get medical coverage for my kids, but I think it is immoral if I can work, so I come here and work every day. But what am I going to do if my children get sick?

Those people do not care about the idle rhetoric that has paralyzed American politics. They want a new choice, and they deserve a new choice, and we ought to give it to them.

Do you really believe that if we permit these conditions to go on for 10, or 20, or 30 years and we permit national politics to continue in its present irrelevant track for 10, or 20, or 30 years that America will lead the world we have made, that you can keep the American Dream alive for the next generation of Americans?

I want my child to grow up in the America I did; I do not want her to be part of the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents did. I do not want her to be a part of a country that is coming apart instead of coming together.

Over 25 years ago, I had a professor of western civilization who told me our country was the greatest country in human history because our people had always believed in two simple things. One is that the present does not have to be as good as the future. The future can always be better. And two, that every one of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so. That is what the new choice is all about. That is what we are here in Cleveland to do.

We are not here to save the Democratic Party. We are here to save the United States of America.

Thank you very much, and God bless you.