In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan’s efforts to portray Democrats as the party of “tax and spend,” social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.
Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda–one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America’s middle class–even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.
Nothing is more relevant to this point than today’s debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.
Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government–one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.
The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today’s technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We’re still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators–surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don’t just fall on their own.
Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges–for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It’s a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, “Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I’ve had.” America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can’t achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.
We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone’s prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term “universal healthcare” we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I’m grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn’t popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda–healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy– reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.
So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I’m not ready to join. The answer to “compassionate conservatism” isn’t timid progressivism. It’s a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that’s how we will be able to win as the party of the people.