[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[February 12, 1998]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]
Remarks to the Joint Democratic Caucus
February 12, 1998
Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, the minute I get back to the White
House I am going to sign an Executive order mandating the widest
possible dissemination, for free, of whatever it is the Vice President
had for breakfast this morning. [Laughter] Thank you, Mr. Vice
President, for what you said and for all
the work you have done over these last 5-plus years to help make our
country a better place.
I want to thank Dick Gephardt and
Tom Daschle, the Members of the Senate and
the House who are here, the members of our team, Mr. Bowles and others. I want to thank Barbara Turner and Judith Lee and Kate
Casey for reminding us of why we're all here.
You know, I--as we have established in painful and sometimes happy
ways over the last 5 years, I'm not exactly a Washington person, you
know. I just sort of showed up here a few years ago for work. [Laughter]
And sometimes I really get lonesome for why I came here. You can go for
days, weeks here, and hardly ever spot a real citizen. [Laughter] I mean
somebody that's just out there living, trying to do the right thing,
showing up every day, trying to make this country a better place by
making their lives and their families and their workplaces and their
communities better places.
These women reminded us today of why we are all here, what our
charge is, why we are here. And we should draw two lessons from what
they all said. Number one, we should never, ever, ever believe that what
we're doing here does not make a difference and is just some personal
power trip or some political party's power trip. That is not true. What
we do here makes a difference, and you've just heard it. The second
lesson we should draw is that
we shouldn't spend too much time patting ourselves on the back because
we still have a lot more to do to make this country what it ought to be
in this new century. And they gave us that. And for me, it was a real
jolt of adrenalin, and it touched my heart and engaged my mind, and I
know you all felt the same way. And I think we should give them another
hand. Thank you very much. [Applause] Thank you.
Let me just say to all of you, I am very proud to be a member of the
oldest political party in this country, and maybe in any free democracy.
I am proud to work with all of you not only to strengthen that party
but, more importantly, to make our country a better place. I want to say
a little bit more about the Democratic Party at the end of my remarks,
but I'd like to say a couple of words about our leaders, Dick
Gephardt and Tom Daschle. And I could say many things about both of them, but
two things strike me because they, in different ways, reflect them at
their moment of greatest challenge.
In 1993 and 1994, we were in the majority, all right, but Dick
Gephardt knew that we were risking that
majority by having to pass a Democrats-only budget and passing a crime
bill which, along with the Brady bill, not only put more police on the
street but took more guns off the street and out of the hands of people
who shouldn't have them. And he was well aware that, if we did those
things, the problem for the House was they had to run every 2 years and
that we would be doing the right thing, but people would not be able to
feel the right thing by the next election, but they could hear all the
fears--``the Democrats are taking your guns away; the Democrats are
taxing you''--all things that were wrong. But he did it anyway.
And by the narrowest of margins, we prevailed on the budget; by a
very narrow margin, we prevailed on the crime bill. The crime bill was
written, in effect, by police officers and community anticrime
activists. And 5 years later we're going to have a balanced budget, and
we've got safer streets, and there are all kinds of people like the
three women who talked here today who have different stories to tell
because Dick Gephardt did the right
thing when it was required. And I appreciate that.
Now, consider Tom Daschle's plight: He
becomes the Senate Democratic leader when we're in the minority, and he
has to deal with the almost unbelievable roll of bad luck--because, you
know, a third of the Senate comes up every year--that even though we're
now in the majority, we have two more elections where we have more
people running than they do. You couldn't--no mathematical statistician
could sit down and figure out a bigger nightmare for a party.
Now, you go into the minority for the first time in a while, and by
the way, you've got two more elections where you have to put more people
up to bat than they do. They'll have more money, but you've got to have
more candidates. And, oh, by the way, you have to show up for work
tomorrow and figure out how to get something done for the American
people consistent with what your members believe in and consistent with
what you know is in the interest of the American people.
But he did it. I defy you to find a time in the last 20 years when
more Democratic ideas have made their way into the lifeblood of America
than they have through the balanced budget, raising the minimum wage,
and the other things that were done. Many of them came right out of
Senate Democratic ideas, in no small measure because Tom
Daschle proved that he could stand up for
our party and reach out a constructive hand to the other party and get
something done for the American people. And I thank him for that.
We have taken our party in a new direction for the 21st century to
help our country go in a new direction, a new direction rooted in the
future, not the past, bound by fiscal discipline but unlimited in
imagination and dreams and hopes for our people, determined to invest in
their future, grounded in our traditional values.
We've shaped a new kind of Government, as the Vice President said.
It is leaner. It's more flexible. It's a catalyst for new ideas. It's
determined to give the American people the tools they need to solve
their problems and make the most of their own lives. It may be the
smallest Government in 35 years, but in many ways it is more progressive
because of all the things we are trying to do. And it is giving us a
You know, of course, that we have the lowest unemployment in 24
years. And I think it's important to say, because of what we care about,
we have rising incomes again, and we have diminishing inequality. Child
poverty is now lower
than it was in 1989 at the top of the last recovery. Why? Because of the
earned-income tax credit that these Democratic caucuses insisted on,
saying ``We are not going to tax hard-working people who do go out there
and work full-time. We're not going to use the tax system to put them
into poverty. We're going to use the tax system to lift them out of
poverty so their children can have a dignified and successful
childhood.'' And I thank you for that.
So what we're doing is working, but what the American people want us
to do is to keep showing up for work--to spend precious little time
celebrating what has been done. That's what we got hired to do. I
remember one time when I was thinking about running for a fifth term as
Governor, and I went out to the State Fair. I used to have Governor's
Day at the State Fair. And this old boy showed up in overalls to the
booth where I was sitting there talking to people. And he said, ``Well,
Bill, you going to run again?'' And I said, ``I don't know, I might.'' I
said, ``If I do, will you vote for me?'' He said, ``Yeah, I will. I
always have.'' But he said, ``I don't know if you can win.'' He said,
``You've been in an awful long time.'' But he said, ``I'll vote for
you.'' And I said, ``Well, don't you think I've done a good job?'' He
said. ``Well, of course, but that's what we hired you to do.''
[Laughter] He said, ``You picked up a paycheck every 2 weeks, didn't
you?'' [Laughter] We should all remember that.
Our citizens are focused on the future, in their own lives and in
our lives. And we're here today not to talk about the past but to talk
about that future. We're here today not to talk about the positions our
party seeks to take against the Republicans in Congress but the
positions our party seeks to advance in the debate with the hope that we
can write them into law and change the lives and the futures of the
American people, so we can have more stories like the three we heard
from these distinguished Americans today.
Now, most of this has been talked about, but let me say the things
that I think are most important and what I hope will be our common
agenda. First of all, we've got to stay the path of fiscal discipline.
We've got to stay the path, because the reason this economy is booming
is that it's clear that we are serious about running a disciplined shop
here. And we've got interest rates down, investment up; it's creating
jobs, almost 15 million new jobs. We can't back off of that.
If I had told anybody, any economist, 5 years ago, ``Look, 5 years
from now we'll have 14.7 million new jobs, an unemployment rate for
months on end under 5 percent, and the lowest inflation in 30 years, and
the highest homeownership rate in 30 years, the lowest Hispanic
unemployment rate on record, the lowest black unemployment rate in
nearly 3 decades,'' they would have said that I needed to see someone
for my sense of reality. That has all happened because we began first
with discipline, and we dare not abandon it.
Now, that means, among other things, we have to recognize that this
balanced budget which is about to happen will maintain itself for many
years, but only because of the high receipts we're getting from Social
Security taxes, and yet Social Security is not all right for the long
run. That's why we have to say as a party, before we spend any of this
surplus, even a penny of it, we ought to have a commitment and a plan
that we will implement to save Social Security first.
The baby boom generation, when we retire, there will be less than
three people working for a every one person drawing. Sometime in the
middle of the next century, in about the, oh, fourth decade of the next
century, there will be only two people working for one person drawing,
if present retirement rates and work force participation rates continue.
I am the oldest of the baby boomers. I can tell you, all of my
friends at home--I'm talking about my middle class friends, people
that--even people that didn't have a college degree or anything--they're
all worried about, number one, will they have a retirement, and number
two, if they have one, will it be so costly to our children that their
ability to raise our grandchildren will be compromised. None of us want
that. None of us need that. That would be a wrong result. And we must
save Social Security in a way that binds us together across the
generations and across our income differences, instead of tearing us
apart. So we must say as a party, we want to save Social Security first.
Now, Judith pointed out she had a 401(k) plan. I'm really proud of a
lot of the work we've done in this Congress, going back to '94, to
stabilize and save private pensions and to make it easier for people to
take out their own private
retirement. That must be a part of this. Whatever we do with Social
Security, most people won't be able to maintain their living standard on
it. And that's good, because they've got a higher living standard. But
that means we have to do more to enable people to save for their own
retirement. We have to make it easier. We have to make it more secure.
We have to make them more options. We have to tailor the plans to the
economy that they're living in, not the one that existed 10 or 20 years
The second thing we have to do is to do more to preserve the quality
of health care. This has already been mentioned by the previous leaders,
but I want to say I think it's imperative that the Democratic Party work
in this Congress to actually pass--and there are members of the
Republican Party who want to do this with us; this need not be a
partisan issue. We ought to pass a consumer bill of rights that
establishes baseline protection for people.
We have 160 million Americans in managed care plans now. They ought
to be entitled to the benefits of those plans without giving up quality
health care and the right to have a doctor make the best prescription
for them. We ought to pass it, and we ought to work and work and work
until it becomes the law of the land.
We are now working, we in the administration, to implement the law
that you passed, that you generated out of this caucus, to extend health
care coverage to 5 million more children. And that will be very
important. Child poverty is down in the last 5 years. Visits to the
doctor are up in the last 5 years. That is good. But we also have to
recognize there are a lot of other populations that still don't have
health insurance. And people between the ages of 55 and 65, people who
lost their jobs and can't get hired again, people who retired early and
were promised health coverage but their companies broke the promise,
people who have a spouse that's old enough for Medicare, and they're
not, and they're ill--those people--all we want to do is let them buy
into the Medicare program.
Now, there are some who say, well, they can't afford it--$300 a
month. I'll tell you what: That's a lot of money; it's a lot less than
one trip to the hospital. One trip to the hospital will cost them 3
times as much as the annual premium will.
Secondly, we cannot afford to do anything that undermines the
stability of the Medicare fund. We've got a Medicare Commission--thank
you, Senator Breaux--that's going to try to
figure out what to do about the long-term financial problems of
Medicare. So we have to let people buy in in a way that doesn't affect
the stability of the fund. A lot of these people have children who will
help them pay these premiums. They may have brothers and sisters who
will help them pay these premiums. What have we got to lose by trying?
It is wrong to leave all these people out there between 55 and 65 at a
vulnerable time, when we can simply give them the option to pay into the
fund at the real cost in a way that will not upset the stability of the
Medicare Trust Fund. I implore you to get behind that, and let's pass it
for the benefit of the people.
We have a great agenda. We have to finish hooking up every
classroom--a great agenda for education--we have to finish hooking up
every classroom to the information superhighway. We have to finish our
work to raise standards and have these basic exams in the basics. We are
offering now--I seek, at least, to offer new options for schools to
follow the Chicago model, not just to end social promotion but to give
all these kids that are being left behind there an actual chance to
learn and the tools with which they can learn.
But perhaps the two most important things we have proposed that I
hope all of us will be united behind, are the idea of putting 100,000
teachers out there to lower our average class sizes in the first 3
grades to 18 kids a class, and then helping either build or repair
classrooms in 5,000 more schools, so we can actually lower class size,
improve the physical conditions, and improve education in those early
grades. It will make a dramatic difference to American education, and I
hope that we will be out there fighting for that.
Lastly, let me say I want to join the chorus of those who believe we
should raise the minimum wage. Now, every time we have raised the
minimum wage in my lifetime there have been those who say, ``If you do
this, it will cost jobs.'' The last time we did it, it didn't cost jobs.
We continued to create jobs at a very brisk pace. But we know that the
real value of the minimum wage today is actually less than it was 20
years ago. We know that.
We know that there is a limit to how much we can do with the earned-
income tax credit, in terms of giving people back money through the tax
system to lift working people and their kids out of poverty, without
running a risk of having the system abused and having people take
advantage of it. But we know if people just get a fair wage for the work
they do, they're not going to get paid if they don't do the work.
So I believe it's time to raise it again. And again I say, with our
economy the strongest in a generation, our prospects bright, but with
our efforts to overcome 20 years of increasing inequality among working
people just beginning to take hold, I think we should raise it again, by
a dollar in two equal steps by the turn of the century. That will raise
the living standards of 12 million hard-working Americans.
I thank Senator Kennedy. I thank you,
Congressman Bonior, for your leadership on
this. I think we ought to reach out a hand just like we did before. We
raised the minimum wage once in this Congress. We can do it again, and
the economy will support it. We just have to look at the statistic of
what's happened to these working families over the last 20 years, and
let's just simply say--we say we favor work over welfare; we've set up a
system to promote that; now, if people are going to show up for work,
they ought to be able to raise their children in dignity. And we ought
to say this. [Applause] So--thank you. Save Social Security first;
establish the Patients' Bill of Rights; let people buy into Medicare;
reduce average class size and build more schools and schoolrooms; raise
the minimum wage.
I also want to associate myself with what has already been said and
with the proposals I've already made on child care, on campaign finance,
on the tobacco legislation, on environmental protection, and medical and
other research, on making our streets safer by passing the funds I've
asked for through the Justice Department and the Education Department to
keep these schools open late hours. All these kids that are getting in
trouble, a bunch of them will never get in trouble in the first place if
you give them something positive to do after school and before the
parents get home from work. I hope you will pass the community
empowerment initiative to bring free enterprise and jobs and investment
to poor neighborhoods in urban areas and rural areas where it still
hasn't reached. We have a lot of other things to do.
And let me just say this. You know the American people agree with
this agenda because you saw the response to the State of the Union. I
urge all of us to resist the temptation to have the whole agenda to take
to them next November. Let's pass every bit of it we can into law. Let's
make every bit of it we can real in the lives of our people. Believe me,
we have enough honest disagreements with our friends in the Republican
Party that some of this agenda is going to be left for us to take to the
American people in November and debate about it. You know that. If they
make their best efforts to honestly work with us based on what they
really believe, and we make our best efforts to honestly work with them
based on what we really believe, there will be some things left on the
table next November that we can probably go to the electorate with. And
we don't have to be ashamed of that.
But we owe it to our people to make sure that if any of these things
that could become law and could change their lives and could make more
stories like these three we've heard--that if it doesn't happen this
year, we owe it to the American people to make sure that it is not our
fault, that we showed up and we did the work here. We owe it to them.
What is the purpose of a political party? I spent a lot of time last
year reading about the 19th century and about places in the 1800's,
periods of time that most Americans don't know much about anymore. I've
spent a lot of time studying the history of our party. I believe the
purpose of our Government and, therefore, the purpose of any political
party, at every important period in our history, if you look back
through it, has been threefold: to widen the circle of opportunity, to
deepen the meaning of freedom, and to unify the Nation.
Now, that's what Thomas Jefferson did with the Declaration of
Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and then became
President, and he bought Louisiana--thank you very much, that put
Arkansas in the Union--[laughter]--and sent Lewis and Clark out west.
Right? Widened opportunity, deepened freedom, unified the country.
Now, any honest Democrat will say that the Republicans did more of
that than we did from Abraham Lincoln through Theodore Roosevelt. And
frankly, I'm sure we had a lot of nice people in our party during a lot
of that period, but they were asleep at the switch. But from
Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John Kennedy to
Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to the present day, through all of our
leadership in Congress in the 20th century forward, our party--we
haven't always been right; we haven't always been up to date; but we
have always been for widening the circle of opportunity, deepening the
meaning of liberty and freedom, and uniting and strengthening the United
States of America. That is what we ought to be about here. That is what
we ought to be about. And if we do it, the American people will respond.
Thank you, and God bless you.
Note: The President spoke at 11:28 a.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office
Building. In his remarks, he referred to Barbara Turner, founder,
Boscart Construction Co., Inc., and Washington, DC, chair, Women's
Leadership Forum; Judith Lee, comptroller, Older Women's League; and
Kate Casey, student, Trinity College, Washington, DC.