A Progressive Vision for America

Excerpted from Ted Kennedy's speech before the National Press Club on Jan. 12.

I categorically reject the deceptive and dangerous claim that the outcome last November was somehow a sweeping, or a modest, or even a miniature mandate for reactionary measures like privatizing Social Security, redistributing the tax burden in the wrong direction, or packing the federal courts with reactionary judges. Those proposals were barely mentioned – or voted on – in an election dominated by memories of 9/11, fear of terrorism, the quagmire in Iraq and relentlessly negative attacks on our presidential candidate.

In an election so close, defeat has a thousand causes – and it is too easy to blame it on particular issues or tactics, or on the larger debate about values. In truth, we do not shrink from that debate. There's no doubt we must do a better job of looking within ourselves and speaking out for the principles we believe in, and for the values that are the foundation of our actions. Americans need to hear more, not less, about those values. We were remiss in not talking more directly about them – about the fundamental ideals that guide our progressive policies. In the words of Martin Luther King, "we must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope."

Unlike the Republican Party, we believe our values unite us as Americans, instead of dividing us. If the White House's idea of bipartisanship is that we have to buy whatever partisan ideas they send us, we're not interested. In fact, our values are still our greatest strength. Despite resistance, setbacks, and periods of backlash over the years, our values have moved us closer to the ideal with which America began – that all people are created equal. And when Democrats say "all," we mean "all." We have an administration that falsely hypes almost every issue as a crisis. They did it on Iraq, and they are doing it now on Social Security. They exploit the politics of fear and division, while ours is a politics of hope and unity.

In the face of their tactics, we cannot move our party or our nation forward under pale colors and timid voices. We cannot become Republican clones. If we do, we will lose again, and deserve to lose. As I have said on other occasions, the last thing this country needs is two Republican parties.

Today, I propose a progressive vision for America, a vision that Democrats must fight for in the months and years ahead – a vision rooted in our basic values of opportunity, fairness, tolerance and respect for each other. These founding beliefs are still the essence of the American dream today. That dream is the North Star of the Democratic Party – the compass that guides our policies and sets our course to freedom and opportunity, to fairness and justice – not just for the few, not just for some, but for all. At our best, in all the great causes for which our party has stood, we have kept that dream alive for all Americans, even and especially in difficult times, and we will not fail to do so now.

Today, as we know too well, that dream is again in peril. The hopes of average Americans have faltered, as global forces cause the economy to shift against them. The challenge has been needlessly compounded, because Republican Congresses and administrations have consciously chosen negative policies that diminish the American dream. We cannot reclaim it by tinkering at the margins. No nation is guaranteed a position of lasting prosperity and security. We have to work for it. We have to fight for it. We have to sacrifice for it. ...

A newly revitalized American dream will, of course, be expressed in policies and programs. But it is more than that. It is a challenge to Americans to look beyond the next horizon, remove false limits on our vision and needless barriers to our imagination, and open the way for true innovation and progress. It is a commitment to true opportunity for all – not as an abstract concept, but as a practical necessity. To find our way to the future, we need the skills, the insight, and the productivity of every American, in a nation where each of us shares responsibility for the future, and where the blessings of progress are shared fairly by all our citizens in return. ...

Here at home, but also for the sake of our future in this rapidly globalizing world, I strongly believe that our highest priority must be a world-class education for every American. As Democrats, we seek a future where America competes with others, not by lowering people's pay and outsourcing their jobs, but by raising their skills. We must open new doors and new avenues for all Americans to make the most of their God-given talents and rekindle the fires of innovation in our society. By doing so, we can turn this era of globalization into a new era of opportunity for America. Universities and school boards cannot master the challenge alone.

We need a national education strategy to assure that America can advance, not retreat, in the global economy in the years ahead. ...

We are past the point where we can afford only to talk the talk, without walking the walk. It's time for the White House to realize that America cannot expand opportunity and embrace the future on a tin cup education budget. The No Child Left Behind Act was a start, but only a start. We need to do more – much more – to see that students are ready for college, can afford college and can graduate from college.

I propose that every child in America, upon reaching eighth grade, be offered a contract. Let students sign it, along with their parents and Uncle Sam. The contract will state that if you work hard, if you finish high school and are admitted to college, we will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree. Surely, we have reached a stage in America where we can say it and mean it – cost must never again be a bar to college education.

We must also inspire a renaissance in the study of math and science, because America today is losing out in these essential disciplines. Two major studies last month ranked American students 29th in math among the 40 leading industrial nations. Over the last 30 years, we have fallen from 3rd to 15th in producing scientists and engineers. Incredibly, more than half of all graduate students in science and engineering in American colleges today are foreign students.

National standards in math and science have existed for more than a decade. We need to raise those standards to be competitive again with international norms, and work with every school to apply them in every classroom. We should encourage many more students to pursue advanced degrees in math and science. We should make tuition in graduate school free for needy students in those disciplines. And we should make undergraduate tuition free for any young person willing to serve as a math or science teacher in a public school for at least four years.

We can make these investments in our nation's future without adding a single penny to the deficit, if we empower colleges to negotiate better agreements with student loan providers. Billions of education dollars needlessly line the pockets of the Sallie Maes of the world. The Bush administration irresponsibly defends this misallocation. Democrats must fight to end it. If Republicans truly care about values, they will join us in throwing the money-changers out of the temple of college education.

Another basic truth is obvious here. How young Americans fare in their school and college years is determined in large part by how well they do in their earliest years. We must invest much more in early education and healthy development for the youngest children, so that entering school ready to learn is no longer just a hollow mantra but a genuine reality. ...

As we prepare our children for the new economy, we must make sure the economy lets them fulfill their American dream. The reality today is that the free market is not truly free. Not all Americans can fully share in its prosperity. We need an economy that values work fairly, that puts the needs of families ahead of excessive profits – an economy whose goal is growth with full employment and good jobs with good benefits for all.

To create good jobs for both today's and tomorrow's economy, the private and public sectors must work together toward specific goals.

We should reduce our dependence on foreign oil – not by drilling in the priceless Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but by investing in clean energy.

We should invest in new schools and modernize old ones, to make schools the pride of their communities again.

We should invest in research and development, to pave the way for innovation and growth.

We should invest in broadband technology, so that every home, school, and business in America has easy and comprehensive access to the internet.

We should invest in mass transit, to reduce the pollution in our air and the congestion on our roads.

We should stop the non-scientific, pseudo-scientific and anti-scientific nonsense emanating from the right wing, and start demanding immediate action to reduce global warming, and prevent the catastrophic climate change that may be on our horizon now.

We must not let the administration distort science and rewrite and manipulate scientific reports in other areas. We must not let it turn the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Pollution Agency.

A progressive economy also recognizes that Americans don't just want more. They want more of what matters in life, which is the true American dream.

They want greater flexibility on the job, with more time for their families, more time for their children's schools, more time to volunteer in their communities and churches and synagogues and mosques. They want jobs that pay fairly and don't force them to work excessive hours without extra pay. They want safe workplaces and the right to join with fellow employees to bargain for a fair workplace. They want companies to stop marketing cigarettes and unhealthy foods to young Americans. They want workplaces free from all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans.

One step we can and should take immediately to help families cope with the relentless and growing pressures of everyday life is to require all employers to give employees at least seven days of paid sick leave a year. That's not asking too much of corporations. For too many Americans, an illness means a cruel choice between losing their job, or neglecting their sick child or sick spouse at home. I intend to introduce legislation early in the new Congress to end that cruelty, and I urge the Republican leadership to bring it to a vote.

I also propose that companies which create good jobs with good benefits should receive new tax advantages, because their mission is so important to our cause. But companies that choose not to do so, that ship jobs overseas, should be denied those new incentives. In addition, we must act at long last to raise the federal minimum wage. Overwhelming numbers of citizens in Nevada and Florida showed the way last November, by voting for a higher minimum wage in their states. It's time for the Republican Party to stop obstructing action by Congress and raise the minimum wage for all employees across the nation.

We must do more to reduce poverty. It is shameful that in America today, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, nearly a fifth of all children go to bed hungry at night because their parents are working full time and still can't make ends meet. For the millions who can't find work and the millions more unable to work at all, we need a strong safety net.

Social Security is fundamental to the integrity of that safety net. Never before – until now – has any president, Republican or Democrat, attacked the basic guarantee of Social Security. Never before – until now – has any president, Republican or Democrat, proposed a cut in Social Security benefits. Yet President Bush is talking not just about a cut, but an incredible 33 percent cut. We must oppose it – and we will defeat it.

We will not let any president turn the American dream into a nightmare for senior citizens and a bonanza for Wall Street. The biggest threat to Social Security today is not the retirement of the baby boomers. It's George Bush and the Republican Party.

To revitalize the American dream, we also need to renew the battle to make health care affordable and available to all our people. In this new century of the life sciences, breakthrough treatments and miracle cures are steadily revolutionizing the practice of medicine and the quality of life. The mapping of the human genome enables us to understand far more about the molecular basis of disease, and to plan far-reaching cures that were inconceivable only a few years ago.

Sadly, in America today, the miracles of modern medicine are too often the province only of the wealthy. We need a new guarantee for the years ahead that the cost of these life-saving treatments and cures will not be beyond the reach of the vast majority of the American people. An essential part of our progressive vision is an America where no citizen of any age fears the cost of health care, and no employer refuses to create new jobs or cuts back on current jobs because of the high cost of providing health insurance.

The answer is Medicare, whose 40th birthday we will celebrate in July. I propose that as a 40th birthday gift to the American people, we expand Medicare over the next decade to cover every citizen – from birth to the end of life.

It's no secret that America is still dearly in love with Medicare. Administrative costs are low. Patients' satisfaction is high. Unlike with many private insurers, they can still choose their doctor and their hospital. For those who prefer private insurance, we will offer comparable coverage under the same range of private insurance plans already available to Congress. I can think of nothing more cynical or hypocritical than a member of Congress who gives a speech denouncing health care for all, then goes to his doctor for a visit paid for by the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan.

I call this approach Medicare for All, because it will free all Americans from the fear of crippling medical expenses and enable them to seek the best possible care when illness strikes. ...

The Democratic Party's proudest moments and greatest victories have always come when we stand up against powerful interests and fight for the common good – and this coming battle can be another of our finest achievements.

To make the transition from the current splintered system, I propose to phase in Medicare for All, age group by age group, starting with those closest to retirement, between 55 and 65. Aside from senior citizens themselves, they have the greatest health needs and the highest health costs, and need our help the most. The first stage of the phase-in should also guarantee good health care to every young child. We made a start with the Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997. It does a major part of the job, and it's time to complete the job now.

As we implement this reform, financing must be a shared responsibility. All will benefit, and all should contribute. Payroll taxes should be part of the financing, but so should general revenues, to make the financing as progressive as possible. We can offset a large part of the expense by a single giant step – bringing health care into the modern age of information technology. By moving to electronic medical records for all Americans when they go to the hospital or their doctor, we can save hundreds of billions of dollars a year in administrative costs while improving the quality of care.

Equally important, we should pay for health care based on value and results, not just the number of procedures performed or days in a hospital bed. We must also expand our investments in medical research, so that we can realize even more of its extraordinary promise. We must confront and defeat the misguided ideology that – in the name of life – denies life-saving cures by blocking stem-cell research.

Above all, as we face the forces of globalization, we must inspire a stronger sense of national purpose among our citizens in a wide variety of areas that serve the public interest. We must affirm anew what it means to be an American. ...

Our new progressive vision must also speak more directly to the issues of deep conscience in the policy positions we take. We must do a better job of explaining these positions in terms of our shared goals and values.

I'm concerned particularly with the contentious and difficult issue of abortion. My deep and heartfelt desire is for families to grow and prosper and continue to bring new life into the world. Our progressive vision and the policies that flow from it are aimed at helping all families thrive in this land of opportunity.

But in this land that cherishes individual rights and liberties, a woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly. As the Supreme Court has recognized, reproductive decisions are among the most personal and private decisions a woman ever makes, and neither Congress nor the White House should be making those reproductive decisions for her. But there is a way America can find common ground on this issue. Surely, we can all agree that abortion should be rare, and that we should do all we can to help women avoid the need to face that decision.

If we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we must be serious about reducing unwanted pregnancy. We must adopt policies with a proven track record of reducing abortion. History teaches that abortions do not stop because they are made illegal. Indeed, half of all abortions in the world are performed in places where abortions are illegal. We do know, however, that the number of abortions is reduced when women and parents have education and economic opportunity.

Our progressive vision is of an America where parents have the opportunity and the resources – including good prenatal care – to bring healthy children into the world. We want every child to be welcomed into a loving home, and to be part of the American Dream. This fundamental vision is at the heart of who we are as Democrats, and we must do everything in our power to make it a reality.

On the issue of gay rights, I continue to strongly support civil marriage. We cannot – and should not – require any religion or any church to accept gay marriage. But it is wrong for our civil laws to deny any American the basic right to be part of a family, to have loved ones with whom to build a future and share life's joys and tears, and to be free from the stain of bigotry and discrimination.

Finally, and by no means least, our actions in the wider world must reflect our values at home as well. ...

America is strongest in the world when we use our superpower status to join with other nations to achieve great goals, instead of bullying them to salute us. More than ever, our strength today depends on pursuing our purposes in cooperation with others, not in ways that anger them, or ignore them, or condescend to them. As Franklin Roosevelt said of America in 1945, "We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of nations far away ... . We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community."

If only President Bush would heed those words. Our fragile planet is not a Republican or Democratic or American community. It is a world community, and we forget that truth at our very, very great peril. ...

A new American majority is ready to respond to our call for a revitalized American dream – grounded firmly in our Constitution and in the endless adventure of lifting this nation to ever new heights of discovery, prosperity, progress and service to all our people and to all humanity. We as Democrats may be in the minority in Congress, but we speak for the majority of Americans. If we summon the courage and determination to take our stand and state it clearly, I'm convinced the battles that lie ahead will yield our greatest victories.
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