St. Mary’s College Center for the Study of Democracy
December 1, 2008
Good afternoon and thank you Michael Cain for your kind words and your leadership of the Center for the Study of Democracy.
I’m incredibly impressed with everything that is going on here at St. Mary’s and I can say sincerely that even though this school is small – its influence is not. I’m thrilled to be here today with students, faculty and community members. It’s a comforting environment, and a familiar one. A little less than two years ago – just a day or two before Governor O’Malley and I took our respective oaths of office, I had the good privilege to give the annual Martin Luther King Day address here at St. Mary’s.
I want to spend some time this afternoon speaking about the direction our country is moving and about the Renewed American Promise. This past summer, I was named to the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Drafting Committee and I played a significant role in writing the agenda and platform that will guide the Democratic Party – and the nation – for the next 4 years.
When we started our work, we had no intention of writing a campaign pamphlet that would be tossed aside on November 5. Neither did we intend to write a thesis for partisan attack dogs. No, we took our task seriously and set out to write a compelling argument for new leadership and a restoration of the promises made by our founders: the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And that’s precisely what we did. The Democratic National Platform – which was assembled through the most open and transparent process in party politics history – is a new promise to Americans.
Renewing the American Promise
I hate to use a cliché, but we are standing at a crossroad in our nation’s history: We’re in the sixth year of a two-front war; wages are down, costs are up and Americans are struggling with challenges we haven’t faced in more than a half century; millions of our neighbors live without health insurance; and the sustainability of our planet is in question.
But even worse than the conditions we find ourselves in are the false promises of the last eight years that brought us here: Leadership that promised to keep us safe, but overextended our military; Leadership that claimed to be compassionate, yet failed to rescue our own neighbors from the rooftops of New Orleans; Leadership that left our veterans to fend for themselves and denied health insurance to children; Leadership that promised fiscal responsibility but somehow turned a $127 billion surplus into the largest deficit ever imagined in American history.
These are broken promises, failures of policies, products of broken politics and the reason that we cannot afford to sit idly by.
We must return to core the American principles of stewardship, service, personal responsibility, shared sacrifice and a fair shot for anyone willing to work on behalf of their own betterment. And that’s where we started when we set out to write the Democratic Platform.
We pointed to four key principles in our efforts to renew the American promise.
First, we need to come together as Americans to renew the American Dream by instilling the same hope and affinity for new ideas that propelled FDR toward the New Deal and JFK toward the New Frontier. Second, we must restore American leadership with diplomatic skill that is as capable as our military might. Third, we must reject the lessons of the last few decades which taught us to act for ourselves, by ourselves and on our own and do everything in our power to revive the American community. And, fourth, we must change our politics, as well as our policies, and renew America’s trust in its democracy.
Renewing the American Dream
Let’s start with the renewal of the American Dream – a dream that was built on the concept that each generation ought to have more opportunities than the one before.
In fact, John Adams said so eloquently during his diplomatic envoy to Paris that,
“I must study politics and war [so] that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy… commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Sadly, though, we’ve allowed that dream to be threatened. More than 5 million Americans have lost their homes in the subprime disaster – 55,000 of them here in Maryland. Unemployment is at the highest level in a generation. Families are earning less despite working longer, more productive hours than ever before. Health costs have gone up, forcing more and more companies to drop coverage. But worst of all, Americans have lost confidence in the most basic concept of the American Dream – that our children will have a better life than we did. And, sadly, the data backs them up: We are the only developed nation in the world whose children are less likely to graduate high school than their parents…
So, under the leadership of a new president, a new Congress and the support of the American people, we will take the necessary steps to protect the American Dream.
First, we need to put partisan labels aside and protect peoples’ homes. Earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass a housing bill that needs to go further. Personally, I’d like to see the bill Governor O’Malley supported and passed become the national standard. Our bill bans scam rescue plans and provides what the Washington Post called the “most sweeping” consumer protections of any state.
But we can’t defend the dream of homeownership without strengthening the middle class and fostering the innovation that leads to job creation.
People are hurting, but no one’s looking for a handout. They need honest help – the tools and the training to adapt to a new economic reality. Before the rescue package or bailout or whatever term you want to use, Democrats called for $50 billion to jumpstart the American economy which includes funding to local and state governments to protect vital services – specifically education and health care.
Today, the most valuable economic commodity is not iron or ore or access to a deep sea port – it’s knowledge, and the blunt reality is that countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. We cannot allow another generation of Americans to fall behind the rest of the world in math, science, engineering and technology education. And we cannot accept stubborn performance gaps to pervade our public schools.
So, we’ll begin by investing in early childhood education to ensure that every child is ‘classroom ready’ before they start kindergarten. We need to recruit and retain more high-quality teachers, and we’ll get there by keeping a simple pledge: if you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education. We need to fix No Child Left Behind and encourage innovation and alternate teaching methods.
Each of you has a unique opportunity at St. Mary’s, but college isn’t a reality for every high school student. Many, though, who are looking to college are finding it harder and harder to afford tuition. So, the platform we developed – America’s platform – will make it just a little easier by ensuring that the first $4,000 of college is free for most Americans if they agree to give back through community or military service.
We can expand opportunity and improve the skills of our workforce, but if folks can’t afford to stay healthy, they’re unable to remain productive. Half of all personal bankruptcies in America are caused by medical bills and we spend more on health care than any other country. We’re ranked 47th in life expectancy and 43rd in child morality. Obesity and a rise in chronic disease are preventing too many Americans from living a full and vibrant life.
We get that good health is the foundation of individual achievement and that’s why we supported universal health coverage. Democrats – and some Republicans – have understood this for years… And now the stage is set in Washington and around the country to expand health coverage to all.
Health care should be a shared responsibility between employers, workers, insurers, providers and government. It’s a simple concept, really. But, how do we get there?
First, we need to step away from the idea that the problem can or will be solved overnight. Profound progress and transformational change rarely come in one fell swoop; rather, it is often the product of constant, daily, incremental change.
So, we Democrats put forth a comprehensive plan that reaches across the aisle to provide coverage for all Americans. Our plan fights back against insurance discrimination and ends the practice of charging people extra because of preexisting conditions. It makes insurance portable.
Statistics say that you’ll have 8-12 different jobs over the course of your career – you shouldn’t worry about losing your coverage if you take a new job or lose it. And we placed a greater emphasis on prevention and wellness and the new administration is going to work with the health care industry, not against it, to improve the quality of care…
Protecting the American Dream is vital in our efforts to renewing the American Promise. That Dream is the basis of all that we are proud of and if it’s not preserved and protected, we won’t make progress on other pressing fronts. Still, if a new generation is going to realize the dream articulated by John Adams, Dr. King and the children of immigrants for generations on end, we must be able to restore the type of American leadership that has led us through tough times that came before.
Restoring American Leadership
Leadership like Franklin Roosevelt’s, Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s… Theirs was a style of leadership that managed to both protect the American people and expand opportunity to future generations. Today’s times call for the same leadership.
The threats to today’s nation are as dangerous and more complex as any that came before. They’re threats that come from weapons designed to kill on a mass scale, from rogue states allied with terrorists, from weak states that cannot control their territory or provide for their people. They’re threats that come from an addiction to foreign oil and a warming, volatile planet.
So, when we sat down, we approached these threats and set seven specific goals: First, end the war in Iraq responsibly; Second, defeat al Qaeda and combat violent extremism; Third, secure the world’s nuclear weapons and materials from getting into the hands of terrorists; Fourth, support and revitalize our own military and keep our promise to veterans; Fifth, reengage our global allies to promote a common security; Sixth, advance democracy and development to the undeveloped world; and, lastly, make American energy independent and protect our planet in the process.
These are incredibly complex issues, and I won’t pretend to be an expert on any of them. But, allow me the chance to touch on those goals related to Iraq, Afghanistan and our veterans.
First, Iraq: I’ve spent 24 years in the U.S. Military, including a 10-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. The men and women I’ve served with over the years, and particularly in Iraq, performed admirably and remain some of the most patriotic men and women I’ve ever met. As honorable as their service is, though, their civilian leaders have failed them. We need to get out of Iraq, and we need to do it in a way that is just as careful as we were careless getting in. And that’s a commitment Barack Obama reiterated today when he announced his national security team.
We’ll start by taking out one or two brigades a month and within 16 months, we’ll turn the Iraqi nation over to the Iraqi people. We’ll keep residual forces to perform specific missions. We’ll provide generous assistance and launch regional and international diplomatic envoys to broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq.
We must end that war because it is distracting us from the war on terror and defeating al Qaeda. We need to refocus so that we can win the war in Afghanistan and our troops there need more support to get the job done. Better intelligence and equipment must be complimented with more combat brigades and greater contributions from our allies.
Terrorists, though, do not respect the sovereign boundaries of nation-states. So, we’ve proposed a Shared Security Partnership to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation with countries around the world. But we also need to lead by example and show those in the Muslim world who want peace, tolerance, development and democratization that we are indeed the global champions of those values: We must respect civil liberties and reject torture.
We must revitalize our military and keep faith with our veterans. Democrats laid out a plan that will increase the size of the Army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000. This effort will be complimented with a renewed commitment to recruit and retain service members – because a nation of 300 million people should not struggle to find men and women to serve. The military needs rebuilding for the 21st century: We’re deficient in language skills, cultural awareness and human intelligence – so we’ll modernize.
But we can’t stop there. I’ve had the privilege to work on behalf of veterans across Maryland and I’m currently using that experience as a co-chair of the Presidential Transition Team at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The simple truth is this: our veterans are not getting the type of service and support from the VA that they should. It’s not because the people at the VA don’t care – they do, deeply. It’s that they are part of a system designed for WWII-era veteran population that is vastly different than today’s.
And vets are falling through cracks: Men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD and TBI at higher levels than ever before; the suicide rate of returning service members is higher than it was following Vietnam; and, sadly, more than two out of three veterans who need behavioral or mental health treatment, do not receive it..
So, what did we propose? A modernized VA that serves today’s veteran population, not yesterday’s; a commitment to implement a new GI Bill for a new generation of heroes; and a promise to say “never again” to the tragedy at Walter Reed.
Reviving the American Community
Part of the drafting process of the DNC Platform was a national tour of local platform hearings. During these hearings, Americans from all walks of life talked of the need for compassion and empathy, of the importance of being united. They shared their support of individualism but told us there was another character in America’s story: an appreciation of community.
They told us that if there’s a child in Baltimore who can’t read, that matters; If there’s a senior in Leonardtown who must choose between medicine and rent, it makes their lives more poor; If there’s a veteran in Cockeysville who’s homeless, it makes them long for their own sense of home.
I share a belief with many Americans that the future of our nation will be determined not only by our government and our policies, but by the determined works of the American people. We must become more actively engaged in meeting the challenges of this new century. And we must do so together by heeding President-elect Obama’s famous words when he introduced himself to the nation four years ago in Boston: “There are no blue states and there are no red states… only the United States of America…”
And in that spirit, we will begin the work to strengthen the American community. We must do all that we can to make it possible for anyone who wants to serve, to be able to serve. We’re going to expand AmeriCorps, double the size of the Peace Corps, and integrate more service opportunities in the public schools.
Renewing an American community is something bigger than identifying avenues to serve, it’s seen in the way we treat those who are most vulnerable. (Or, to borrow a phrase from Governor O’Malley, it’s the belief that there are no spare Marylanders and no spare Americans.)
So, our platform, America’s platform, is one that say’s “never again” to the mismanagement of Katrina that left an entire city stranded and forgotten; it’s a platform that sees untapped economic assets in America’s urban centers; and it’s a platform that believes we still have work ahead of us to end discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and any other form of prejudice.
And that means opening the doors of America’s democracy to Americans who have long felt locked out of the system.
Renewing America’s Trust in its Democracy
America has overwhelmingly called out for change. Barack Obama became the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter to win a majority of votes. He collected more individual votes than any candidate for elected office in American history. He has helped usher in a new day.
Just think about his accomplishment for a minute…
A black man who was old enough to remember Dr. King’s death was just elected President of the United States of America by carrying Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. That’s what progress looks like.
But Barack Obama wasn’t elected President because he was the ‘black’ candidate. He won the presidency because he inspired people to take hold of their democracy. Three million individual people contributed to his campaign – many of them giving $5 or $10. And well over 130 million people went to the polls last month: 23.4 million more than in 2000.
Americans are taking a stake in their democracy. And they are demanding that their voice be heard.
Before we set out to write the platform, 30,000 Americans were inspired enough to have their voices heard by attending 1,645 local platform hearings. And we took their comments seriously.
Americans want open, accountable and transparent government. And when Barack Obama takes office next month, he will open up the doors of America’s democracy and restore America’s faith in their government: Publishing searchable, online information about federal grants, contracts, earmarks, loans and – even – lobbyist contacts with government officials. If you want to know what’s going on in the White House or on Capitol Hill, you’ll be able to find out…
That also includes efforts to make government work more efficiently, and that starts by hiring competent people based on qualification, background and experience, not ideology or party affiliation. It also involves discontinuing funding programs that don’t work, but giving programs that do work the funding they need. Americans need an open government in order to trust its motives but they also need a government that respects the documents it is supposed to defend and fights for the civil liberties that make Americans the most free citizens of the world…
While we are not perfect – neither individually nor collectively – we have an opportunity together as a people to perfect what we do. We are a great nation and a strong nation. We didn’t get to this point by chance. Strong nations, strong states, strong communities are built, not born. They’re built by people who are willing to work hard and work smart for their own self-betterment and the betterment of their neighbors.
When your children look back on this time, they’ll see a time unlike any other. Despite the challenges we face – a shrinking economy, a constant threat of terrorism, a warming planet – they will see greatness in your generation – as long as we are all willing to do our part in renewing America’s promise.
Generations before yours have been challenged. Time after time they answered that call. I hope you do as well.
Thank you very much.