News & Politics

Becoming the Party of Change

Democrats have suffered a couple of serious defeats, but we're energized because we know that our vision for America is much better than the dark and difficult vision of the Republican Party.
Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Howard Dean's June 2 speech at the Take Back America 2005 conference in Washington, D.C. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

We need a four-year campaign, not a seven-month campaign for the presidency. We need to be everywhere. We need to get out our message, and we need to talk to people about why it's important to be Democrats. And we need to have a positive agenda. We can't just talk about all the things that are wrong with George Bush's presidency, although I do happen to have a list of them right here in front of me.  

We've really got to talk about what we're going to do differently, but I want to start by talking about pensions and Social Security.

You know, the president rules by polls. He drives the agenda based on polls. The polls told him that he could get away with privatizing Social Security if he told old people -- I'm now in that category, as I've turned 55 -- that we're going to be okay, that the 20- and 30-year-olds aren't. They made a fundamental mistake thinking the 20- and 30-year-olds were dumb, and that they wouldn't notice.

It wasn't enough for the president to try and wreck the public pension system that we have. It wasn't enough for him to try to turn over Social Security for the same people who brought us Enron; his good friends and political contributors. Now we find that under this president's watch, private pension plans have been grossly underfunded. What does this president want? Don't Americans deserve after a long life of work, don't they deserve a retirement that will be there for them?

This week the Labor Department estimated that in 2004 the underfunding of pension plans grew to $450 billion. Sixty percent of companies take advantage of outdated accounting rules to avoid making annual contributions to them. The president wants to take away our Social Security, and then he starts taking away the private pension plans too? What does he think ordinary Americans live on after they get to be 55 years old?

However, I said I wouldn't just criticize the president; that [we needed to offer a positive agenda as well]. Here's what Democrats need to stand up for: we need to have pension portability, so that as we move from job to job pensions follow us along. Pension plans ought not be controlled by companies, they should be controlled [by the people who own them].

Enron began around the time Bush took office. Forty thousand Americans lost their pensions. Another tens of thousands lost theirs just last week, when the courts took away the United Airlines workers' pensions. This is a serious problem. The president has had his time, he's done nothing... We have a positive plan of portability and independent control of pensions outside the corporations that abuse the money. This is stealing to let pension plans go down like this. That money does not belong to those companies that use it to bail themselves out of bankruptcies. It belongs to the people who earned them. We want these pensions in America to be independently run, so that they aren't looted by CEOs who are in the throes of bankruptcy who make $30 or $40 million a year. That is wrong.

The [Republicans] talk about a culture of life. What about a culture of corruption in this country? We have the leader in the Republican Party [in the House of Congress], who the president just endorsed as doing a fine job, and who the chair of the Republican party endorsed as doing a fine job.

I happen to think that's true; the Republican definition of a fine job is to be reprimanded three times in a row [by the House ethics committee]. The Republican definition of a fine job appears to be if your leader is under investigation and three of his aides have been indicted for allegedly funneling $600,000 of corporate money into Texas campaigns. That's how Republicans do business. They think it's fine. Americans don't think it's fine. We need to get the culture of abuse and corruption in Washington out of here.

And we will do that. We need to be the party of reform -- campaign finance and election reform. I used to say during the presidential elections that if you want to have real campaign finance reform, don't wait around for a politician to do it, just go out and do it yourself. Send us $25 over the Internet. We need to train more people to do that. If middle-class and working Americans worry about their loss of control and Republican control of the House and the Senate realize that they can fix that by sending over $25 once in a while, giving to a candidate that they like, then we can take back America. We'll buy back America from the corporate interests, $25 at a time, because there are a lot more of us than there are of them.

We also need to be the party of election reform. We ought to do everything we can to make it easier for more Americans to vote. The Republicans are all about repressing votes; two voting machines if you live in a black district, and 10 voting machines if you live in a white district. I think every single American ought to be able to vote. If we're going to have a democracy, and lord knows that this administration is eroding democracy, the great genius of American democracy is that 48% of you can vote one way, and still have some say about the government. Now they're trying to eliminate that. The protection of the minority is an important principle in America. Dr. Frist of videotape diagnosis fame [wants to end that].

We need to be the party of change. This is an extraordinary opportunity for Democrats. We've suffered a couple of serious defeats, but we're energized because we know that our vision for America is much better than the dark and difficult vision of the Republican Party. We're in a war because the people who got us there weren't truthful with the American people.

In October, I met with an extraordinary evangelical group that understands the real dangers of what's going on. You know, we have a lot more friends that we think we have in the Democratic community in this country, and we ought to reach out more to evangelical Christians. Most of the evangelicals want to do the right thing for their children. 

We need not be ashamed or reluctant to reach out and get votes from everywhere. We stand for all that is right in America. We stand for honest government. We will insist that the money that working people have earned will be set aside for their retirement, that it won't be used to leverage a buyout or bankruptcy. We will have a strong defense, but a strong defense is not just a strong military; it's also a balanced budget. And if you elect Democrats you can trust them with your money, while the Republicans will continue to borrow and spend, borrow and spend. Democrats can do better than that.  We will change the elections laws so that they work for the American people and not the professional politicians in Washington.

The only other thing I want to share, and then I'm out of here, is that we have a lot of work to do. And not once did anybody I know quit after November 2 of 2004. It was discouraging. We didn't win. We have four more years of the most ineffective presidency I have seen in my lifetime. But not once, did the people in this room give up. Not once. We're in this for the long haul. This is not about politics. This is about an extraordinary invention -- it's about America.

America is an extraordinary invention.  And we haven't always been perfect, over the past 200 and some odd years of history. Even though we didn't always do the right thing, we always knew what the right thing to do was and we tried to do it. The greatest blow to America we have suffered in the past four-and-a-half years is the ascent of cynicism and the belief that propaganda and manipulation will succeed, and I think it will not. I think that the values of this country are what we're fighting for.

This is not about politics. This is about reclaiming America as the great beacon of optimism and hope, and we will do that, not simply by saying what's wrong with Republicans, though the list is so long that I could go on for an hour and a half. What we will do is offer optimism and hope. Real optimism, real hope for real problems. What the American people want is real solutions to real problems, and they want an honest government and be told what the situation is and suggest a remedy.

One of the things that I discovered is that money is important and motivation is important, but there's one other thing you have to have....The one thing that we have to do in the Democratic Party is to stop being afraid of being different from the Republicans and stand up for what we believe in!
Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, is the founder of Democracy for America, a grassroots organization that supports socially progressive and fiscally responsible political candidates.
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