[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[February 25, 1998]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]
Remarks at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Dinner in San
February 25, 1998
Thank you. You know, that was a better speech than the one I was
going to give. [Laughter] Thank you, Bill.
Thank you, Sally. I am delighted to be here;
this is a beautiful, beautiful place. It's been a great dinner,
interesting people. Thank all of you for being here and supporting these
Thank you, Congressman Miller, and thank
you, Nancy Pelosi, for being here and for your
leadership. I told some people--we were just at a larger reception over
at the Fairmont, and I told the people there that the thing I really
liked about Nancy Pelosi was she'd been in
Washington a long time, and she still had not managed to become cynical.
She's still full of energy and passion and conviction. And we need more
of that there.
I want to thank Mike and Lois for running for Congress. They are prepared to make a
not insignificant sacrifice in the quality of their life to go there and
serve you. And they will serve us well.
Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for coming
here, and thank you for going on ``Politically Incorrect'' and sticking
up for me tonight. [Laughter] It's truly strange that that would be
politically incorrect to do, but that's all right. [Laughter]
I have a lot of friends here, but I want to say I'm especially glad
to see Bill and Lee Perry. Bill Perry is one of the finest public servants that has
served the United States in my lifetime, one of the greatest Secretaries
of Defense we've ever had, and I thank him for being here.
I'd also like to thank all of you in this room who have helped me
and Hillary and Al and Tipper in our wonderful journey these last
several years. And the people of California and the people of this
community, in particular, have been very, very good to us, and I'm
profoundly grateful. And to those of you who've helped us, especially on
the technology issues over the last 5 years, I thank you, too.
I was trying to think of what I ought to say tonight that you
haven't already heard. One thing I thought, when Bill talked about what
a meritocracy Silicon Valley was, and it didn't matter where you came
from as long as you could program a computer, you know, you could become
a partner. I thought, my God, if I had made my career there, I'd be
starving now. [Laughter] Never has one so technologically challenged
tried so hard to do so much for high technology in America.
Our country is in good shape tonight, and I'm very grateful for
that. When you made that crack about how could you still be a
Republican--I used to kid Bob Dole about every time
the stock market would go up another 100 points, I'd say, ``Here I am
working to get you more money for your campaign.'' [Laughter] It was
against my self-interest, but I did it anyway. It was good for the
The country is in good shape. I hope that doesn't mean that we are
feeling complacent or that we're going to take our eye off the ball and
become more small minded when we ought to become more large minded and
more visionary. And that's basically what I was trying to say in the
State of the Union. And I feel--I'm glad that my fellow Democrats can go
into this election cycle and say we proved that you could reduce the
size of Government and balance the budget and still invest more in
education and health care and the environment. We proved that you could
have a partnership with business and still be compassionate toward
working people. We proved that you could be for creating more jobs and
still for giving people the support they need to succeed with their
families at home, with child care and things like that. I'm glad we can
say that. Or we can just reel the numbers off and say we've got the
lowest unemployment rate in 24 years, the lowest crime rate in 24 years,
the lowest, smallest welfare rolls in 27 years, the lowest inflation in
30 years, the highest homeownership in history.
But all that means is that more people have good life stories to
tell. And yet, if we think about the dynamism of this time, it's not
true that the society is changing as fast or as profoundly as the
Internet is growing, for example. But it's changing about as fast or as
profoundly as a human organism can change. And therefore, we need to be
thinking always about the future and what we're doing to prepare for
century we're about to enter. And I'd just like to mention three or four
things tonight that I think are terribly important.
First of all, it's important to keep the economy growing. It may be
that technology with good economic conditions will permit a higher level
of growth for a longer period of time at lower levels of inflation than
previously we had thought. That may be true. It will only be true if we
are responsible. And one of the things that to me has been most
gratifying has been the public response to my insistence that we not
start spending the surplus before it materializes. We've had a deficit
for 30 years, and you know, as soon as the new year came around
everybody had great ideas for how to spend the projected surplus.
Now, I do believe we have eliminated the structural deficit, and I
believe we'll get a balanced budget this year--if not this year,
certainly next year. And then it's projected that we'll have surpluses
for several years thereafter, more than a decade. And I hope that
happens. And because there's no structural deficit in the budget--that
is, even if the economy slows down, and you know, when the economy slows
down, you get less tax money, and you have to put more out because there
are more people unemployed--but over time, if there's no structural
deficit, we'll still have a balanced budget to a large surplus,
depending on how much we're growing.
There are a lot of people who want to start spending that right now
in tax cuts or spending programs, and we should do neither. We certainly
shouldn't do it (a) until it materializes--the bird is not in hand yet--
and (b) we should not do it until we have dealt with the long-term
financial problems with the Social Security system. We have some
significant decisions to make. And I think it's very important.
Now, what my goal is, is to spend this year having a nonpartisan
national process by which we discuss all the alternatives that are out
there available, and then early next year we'll pass legislation which
will basically take care of the long-term stability of the system.
Simultaneously, no matter what option we choose, by 2029, when the
present Trust Fund is expected to run out of money and start costing
more money than the people are paying in every year in taxes, we will
have to do some significant things. But no matter what we do, not now
and not then will Social Security be enough for most Americans, the
vast, vast majority of Americans, to maintain the standard of living
they enjoy, once they retire. Therefore, we also have to find ways for
people to save more and to prepare more for their own retirement. So
we're going to be looking at a lot of interesting ideas in the Social
Security system. And I hope all of you will enter that debate.
But as I said in the State of the Union Address, it's literally
true, there was a public opinion survey done last year which showed that
most people under 25 thought it was more likely that they would see a
UFO than that they would ever draw a penny of Social Security. I don't
want to discourage young people from watching ``The X-Files''--
[laughter]--but I think we have to somehow reverse that perception. So
that's the first thing I want to say.
And by the way, we have a simultaneous effort going on now with
Medicare. We have more than a decade of life on the Medicare Trust Fund.
But again, the pure demographics of the baby boom retirements and the
fact that we're living longer and accessing more high-tech medicine mean
that we're going to have to make some changes in Medicare if we expect
it to sustain itself well into the next century.
It is well not to underestimate the good these programs have done.
In 1985, for the first time in the history of our country, the poverty
rate among people over 65 was lower than the poverty rate of people
under 65. When Social Security was inaugurated, over 70 percent of the
American people over 65 were living in poverty. Many of them were living
in abject poverty. This is a terrific achievement for our country. And
while I have emphasized putting more emphasis on the children in this
country in poverty and more on their health care, their education, their
nutrition, their well-being, we do not want to give up this signal
achievement that is really a mark of a decent society. And yet, in order
to avoid it, we're going to have to plan for it and deal with the fact
that my generation, the baby boomers--and I'm the oldest of them--when
everybody from my age to 18 years younger crowds into the Social
Security system, the Medicare system, all this is going to change
And we owe it--and I don't know anybody--and most of the people I
grew up with are middle class people; more than half of them don't have
college educations, the people I went to high school with. And I was
with a bunch
of them not very long ago, and we all sat around the table, and every
one of them is haunted by the idea that when we retire we would have to
impose an unwarranted financial burden on our children and on their
ability to raise our grandchildren in order to take care of us. Nobody
wants that. And we have an opportunity now, by acting now, to make
relatively modest steps that will have relatively huge impacts in the
years to come if we do it. So that's the first and very important thing
I want to say.
The second point I'd like to make is that we have a lot of work to
do in this country on education. And many of you have helped us in our
goal of hooking up every classroom and library to the Internet by the
year 2000. We're making good progress on that. But consider the anomaly
in the United States--one of the things that I could just feel, during
the State of the Union, resonating with people at home was when I went
through all the things we'd done to increase aid to people who go on to
college. Basically, now, most Americans qualify for a $1,500 tax credit,
tax reduction for the first 2 years of college and a tax credit for
junior and senior year and graduate school. And there are more Pell
grant scholarships at higher income levels. There are education IRA's.
You can deduct the interest on the student loan. The people that are in
our direct loan program can get cheaper college loans with better
repayment terms. All of these things--there are 300,000 more work-study
slots out there.
It's literally true today that if you're willing to work for it, you
can go to college. And community college is virtually free now. For
people who go to community colleges, that $1,500 tax deduction covers
all the tuition for about 80 percent of the community colleges in the
country. And there's a great sense of achievement there. Why? Because
people know it really means something to have higher education in
America. And they know we have the best system of higher education in
No one believes we have the best system of elementary and secondary
education in the world. We just got the results of the Third
International Math and Science Survey, which is given to several
thousand--I think about 20,000--but a representative sample of our high
school seniors. And of 21 countries, we scored 19th. Now, in the eighth
grade we're in the middle; in the fourth grade we're near the top now;
we tied for second in the fourth grade test.
What happens? There are lots of reasons for what happens. But we've
been trying to unpack that. But I do not believe it is any longer
acceptable to say, ``Well, what do you expect, because we have so many
poor kids. Twenty percent of our kids are in poverty, and we have so
many minority kids,'' and all that. That is all a bunch of bull. This is
not rocket science. I mean, Sally just introduced us to that magnificent
young woman who's a student at Stanford. I believe all kids can learn. I
believe 90 percent-plus of us can learn 100 percent of what we need to
know to make a society go; otherwise democracies would all fail. And it
would have happened long ago.
I have supported the charter school movement and school choice and a
lot of other things. But we have got to have also more standards and
more emphasis on teaching and a lot of other reforms in the schools.
We've got a big program out there now to lower class sizes and do a
number of other things in this session of Congress. But I intend to
spend a huge amount of effort in the next 3 years to do what I spent the
20 years before I became President working on in public life, and that
is trying to give us the best elementary and secondary system in the
world. Because we're kidding ourselves if we think we can really build a
truly meritocratic society if a bunch of people are stunted coming out
of the blocks.
The next issue I'd like to mention that I think has great relevance
to the future is the environment. This year the two major--I'm very
proud of this; I didn't mention this before, but compared to 5 years
ago, the air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; there are fewer toxic
waste dumps; and the food supply is safer. And we have set aside more
land in trust to be saved than any administration in the history of the
country, except the administrations of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.
And I'm very proud of that. We're working on saving Lake Tahoe now, and
I'm very proud of that.
But there is still a great deal to be done and on two issues in
particular which will affect the quality of life in California. The
first is with regard to clean water. The Clean Water Act, which was
passed 25 years ago, was designed to deal with pollution mostly coming
out of sewage systems and out of industrial activities, so-called point
source pollution. Bad stuff comes
out of a pipe, goes in the water. Clean it up. Forty percent of our
waterways in America are still not pure enough to swim and fish in
because of non-point pollution, things that run off from the land. We
have got to do more on that. We have a major initiative on that, a new
clean water initiative.
The other thing that I think is imperative that we get on is--and
you're dealing with it right now with El Nino--the climate change
phenomenon is real, and we must do what we can to meet America's
responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We can do that and
still grow the economy. Every time we've had to face a clean air or
clean water issue people have said, ``Oh, if you do this, it's going to
shut the economy down.'' And every time we've done it, it has given the
economy a boost because it's opened up a whole new area of high-tech
jobs that we didn't have before.
Now basically, a third of all these CO2 emissions come
from transportation, a third come from buildings, homes, and office
buildings, and a third come from manufacturing plants and electric
generators. And the technology is now available, right now, to reduce
substantially our greenhouse gas emissions, with available technology
that pays out in 2 to 3 years, with regard to buildings, office
buildings, homes, manufacturing facilities, and electric generators. And
with the new fuel injection engines that are being developed for
automobiles, with the hybrid electric and fuel and gasoline engines and
a lot of the other things that are going on, within 2 or 3 years you're
going to look at automobiles that have literally one-fourth to one-fifth
the greenhouse gas emissions of today's automobiles. This is an
imperative thing to do, and I hope all of you will support this, because
we have a good program going through Congress, and I think we'll pass
it. But it's important.
The last thing I'd like to say is, Bill talked about research.
Hillary gave me the idea of trying to have a part of our program this
year be a gift to the millennium that would be part respecting the past
and part imagining the future. The respecting of the past part, we're
going to try to restore the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the
Declaration of Independence, and the Star-Spangled Banner and get people
in every community in the country to do an inventory of what they have.
For example, there's a place called the Old Soldiers' Home in
Washington, DC, that was built before the Civil War. And on the Old
Soldiers' Home there is a cabin which is almost totally dilapidated now,
where Abraham Lincoln's family lived every summer--and other Presidents.
It wouldn't cost that much to restore it. It's a Washington, DC,
facility. Every single community in this country has places in it that
tell the part of America's story, and they have to be preserved.
But we also have to recognize that in the years we were running
these huge deficits, we wound up underinvesting in a lot of things we
should have invested more in, principally research. So we've also
offered the biggest research budget in the history of the country in
this balanced budget. And I hope we can pass it, and I hope all of you
will help us pass it because it's a big part of our future.
The last thing I'd like to say is this: I have tried very hard to
change the political culture of Washington with, you would have to
charitably say, mixed results. [Laughter] I don't even understand it
half the time. I realize I'm afflicted by the fact that I had a real
life for too long.
But I will say this: I think that the work we're doing in this race
initiative, the campaign against the employment nondiscrimination--for
the ``Employment Non-Discrimination Act,'' the efforts to bring America
together across all the lines that divide us and to have everybody
judged based on their merit and to give everybody a chance and to build
an America that basically is a stunning contrast to the racial and
ethnic and religious conflicts that are beleaguering the world--how much
of your time as President--because my time is really yours--has been
spent in my Presidency on the problems of my people in Northern Ireland,
my people, still arguing over things that happened 600 years ago, or the
continuing torment in the Middle East or what happened in Bosnia or
trying to save all those children from the horrible fate they were
facing in Rwanda and all these places? We're supposed to be living in
this great modern world--you can hook everybody up to an Internet--but
if they still have primitive impulses, then they just have modern
technology to give greater vent with greater intensity to primitive
I want us to have a strong economy, and I want us to always be on
the forefront of every
new thing that happens. But in the end, we have to prove that we can be
one nation together. And I try to end all my talks now by just reminding
everybody that the people that came here to start this country came here
because they literally deplored the unlimited, arbitrary, abusive
exercise of power over the lives of citizens. And they had a better
idea. They said, ``We want to be free, and we want to be free to pursue
happiness--not have it guaranteed to us; free to pursue it--and in the
process, we will work to form a more perfect Union.''
Now these people you're supporting here and the party we represent--
yes, we've modernized the Democratic Party. Thank you, Bill. And yes, they can't say all those bad things about
Democrats they used to say. But if you look at the whole 20th century,
if you go right back to Woodrow Wilson forward, our country has always
been for those things. We've always been for more freedom, more
opportunity, and a stronger Union. Which means, even when we haven't
been right on the issues, we've been on the right side of America's
history. And I'm proud to be here with you, Mike. I'm proud to be here with my good friend Lois. And I'm proud to be here with a party that I think can
lead America to a better place in the new century.
Thank you very much.
Note: The President spoke at 10:20 p.m. at a private residence. In his
remarks, he referred to William and Sally Hembrecht, dinner hosts; State
Senator Mike Thompson, candidate for California's First Congressional
District; Lois Capps, widow of the late Representative Walter H. Capps
and candidate for California's 22d Congressional District; Mayor Willie
L. Brown, Jr., of San Francisco; and William J. Perry, former Secretary
of Defense, and his wife, Lee.