Gov. Tom Vilsack 
2005 DLC National Conversation
Columbus, Ohio
July 25, 2005
Remarks as delivered

Thank you, folks. Thank you very much. You know, it's a distinct honor to be introduced by Kathleen Sebelius. She is, as you all know, the governor of Kansas. She has done an extraordinary job in revitalizing the economy of her state, and she is one of many women governors that we should be extraordinarily proud of. I consider her a friend, and when she talks about the future I can assure you that she too has a very, very great future. Kathleen, thank you.

I have been joking with Mayor Coleman that I appreciate the good-conduct pass that he provided to allow someone from the Hawkeye State to come into the Buckeye State, and while there may be discussions about the Rose Bowl in Michigan -- not this year.

And to my good friend Tom Carper, I just want to reassure everyone here, I was not a Goldwater supporter. And my wife, Christie, clearly was not a Goldwater gal. In fact, when I first entered the college campus in 1968, it was the fall of a very tight and tough election. I saw this very attractive co-ed in the ice cream line of my school, decided I would strike up a conversation with her. Searching for the right thing to say that would be memorable, all I could come up with was, are you a Nixon or Humphrey supporter? It is the first thing I said to my wife. She looked at me with a rather quizzical look, and she said, Humphrey of course. And I said, well, it's a good thing you said that because otherwise we might not have gotten together. And she said, you're right; it's a good thing I said that because you never would have been governor of Christie tells me...

You know, I am extraordinarily proud to assume the leadership of the DLC, and I recognize and appreciate the large footsteps that I follow. There have been extraordinary Democratic leaders who have been part of this DLC: Dick Gephardt, President Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh.

I want to say something about Evan Bayh. You all know his professional resume. It is extraordinary. You all know that he was an unbelievably successful governor, one that many of us pattern ourselves after. You know that he was elected in a red state by large majorities. You know that he had been a forceful voice in the United States Senate. But for me, Evan Bayh is a father. He came to Iowa several years ago at my request to spend some time with Iowa Democrats. And we are certainly happy, Senator, to have you come back and visit with Iowa Democrats. But during the course of that event, I got to know his deep and abiding affection for his two boys. And I'll tell you, in this day and age where folks talk about family, this guy really lives it. And I'll tell you, Senator, you are an example for all of us in that regard and I value that about you a great deal.

Kathleen and I are joined by two other of our colleagues. Governor Mark Warner, who I think you'll hear from later, just ended a successful reign as the Chair of the National Governors Association, and Brad Henry, who was an extraordinarily successful governor of Oklahoma.

We are all proud be associated with an organization and with individuals such as yourselves, leaders from across this great nation, state local and federal leaders, who are willing to devote the time and the energy to move this country forward. There are more than 300 of you in attendance here today, one of the largest gatherings of Democratic leaders anywhere short of a political convention, and I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for spending the time and committing the energy to making sure this party responds to the nation's challenges. We are certainly pleased to have you here.

We are also pleased to be part of an organization with Al From's leadership and Bruce Reed's leadership and the staff that is dedicated to putting together a positive, progressive, practical agenda that responds to America's needs, that says to American families, we understand your stresses and anxieties and we wish to craft policies and programs consistent with your values and our values that will make your lives better.

You know, the core of our organization, the values of our organization, represent the core values of this great country: responsibility, opportunity and security. They are values that Al From and the staff have articulated to us and advocated to us for over 20 years. They are the values that have been part of a winning national message in 1992 and 1996, and I daresay in the year 2000 and 2004.

You remember then-Governor Bush riding in a bus across this great land with the words "opportunity" and "responsibility" painted on the sides of the bus. We all remember the election of 2004 where security was a principal issue. The unfortunate thing is we didn't live up in this administration to those values. Responsibility: from an administration that cannot and will not and won't admit any mistakes. Opportunity: an administration that has provided no strategy for dealing with upside of globalization and as importantly the downside. Security: Senator Bayh has already talked about national security, but we also know that there is an issue of healthcare security and energy security. No, these have failed us, this administration, and they have frankly left us not as secure as we deserve to be, not as competitive as we must be, and not as innovative as we need to be. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our mission: to change the direction of this country.

As significant as all of these failures have been, I want to talk to you today about what I believe to be the most significant failure of the Bush administration and Republican policies, and that is the failure to support community, the fact that their policies have undermined a sense of community and a sense of purpose at a time unlike any other when we need to come together as a nation.

You know, community is important to America. If you consider the Declaration of Independence, it talks about individual liberties and rights, but it also suggests that it is our collective community responsibility when governments are not supporting and advancing individual liberties and rights to take action. Our Constitution starts with those words, "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union." It is community that has sustained us during our most difficult and darkest moments -- world wars, great depressions -- and it is community that has inspired us to our greatest achievements as we enlarged the rights and responsibilities of a society through civil rights legislation.

But to be candid with you, the best way I can describe to you a sense of community is to share with you a story that I was told several weeks ago. Bernard Schwartz is here, and he is a great Democrat and a great American. And during the course of my meeting with him, I asked him the question that my wife generally asks the people when she meets them for the first time at Democratic functions. She will look folks in the eye and she'll say, so why are you a Democrat?

I asked Mr. Schwartz that question. I never imagined the answer I would get. He took me back to a time in the late 1800s and early 1900s when his grandfather and grandmother came over this country. They understood the importance of affiliating themselves with a political party and they became strong Democrats, and in fact, his grandfather was involved with ward politics, making sure that people in the ward were well cared for. He understood and they understood that the Democratic Party was on their side, was working to improve their life. And he worked and he worked for the party.

Sadly, Bernard's grandfather was stricken at an early age. Bernard's father had to leave school and had to go to work. Bernard's father would tell Bernard as a young child of the day when Thanksgiving would roll around and the Christmas holiday would come. And every year, every year after Bernard's grandfather passed away, the Democratic Party delivered a turkey on Thanksgiving and coal to warm the house during the Christmas holiday. They understood intuitively a sense of community. They understood the essence of America, a common purpose, trust and integrity, mutual responsibility, shared sacrifice, and a desire to inspire bigger and better things.

What has this administration done with our community? Following 9/11, as Senator Bayh suggested, an extraordinary opportunity to unite us, to bring us together, to focus us on a common purpose, to challenge us. Sadly, this administration used that tragic event for partisan purposes, to win elections in the short term, and left us without a common purpose. Trust and integrity? Not sharing with us the true reasons for going to war or the true price we would have to pay to continue the war, establishing a new standard for employment at the White House: All you need to do is avoid indictment.

What about shared sacrifice and responsibility? Evan knows and Tom Carper knows as governor that you are the commander in chief of the National Guard, and in that solemn responsibility during a time of war, when the men and women from your National Guard are placed in harm's way, you have the responsibility, the obligation, the duty to communicate to families who have lost loved ones. Kathleen knows what I'm talking about. It is the toughest job that a governor has.

I will never forget calling Mrs. Smith from my state shortly after hostilities began in Iraq. She was a wonderful woman, a wife who is proud of her 42-year-old husband. He was a helicopter pilot. He was in charge of a mission to take 18 soldiers in his helicopter. The copter was hit by missiles, and in a split second Bruce Smith had to decide whether or not he was going to save his life or the lives of his passengers. He was a brave and courageous man. He decided that it was important to fulfill his mission to protect the safety and security of the men in his chopper. The chopper crashed, Bruce passed away, the 18 soldiers lived.

When I called Mrs. Smith to convey my condolences, she said to me, "Governor, I have got it figured out. Those men in that chopper needed Bruce more in that split second than I will need him for the rest of my life." Ladies and gentlemen, that family has been asked to accept the ultimate sacrifice: the loss of a husband and a father. I ask you today -- what have the rest of us been asked to sacrifice? How have we been asked to reach that level of commitment to this nation? What are our leaders in the White House and in the Congress asking us to do? For those of us who may be fortunate enough to be very well off, you are simply not being asked to pay more; you are actually receiving more. Have we been asked to sacrifice, to change, to commit in any way? Is it right? Is it fair? Is it the American way to ask a small sliver of our society to bear the full responsibility? Is that really supporting a sense of community? I think not and I think it's time for a change.

This administration had an opportunity to bring us together as a nation, to unify us behind some great initiative. Perhaps it could have been to tackle the issue that has plagued us for so many years, the ability to provide healthcare to all of our citizens, to extend healthcare security to all. The reality is when we have 45 million uninsured people, it is not that these folks are fortunate enough not to get sick; the fact is they do get sick. And when they get sick, they are required to go to the hospital. And when they go to the hospital they go to an emergency room. And when they go to the emergency room, they secure healthcare at the most expensive cost. Who bears the cost for that? It is shifted because we as a community are not doing enough. It is shifted to the private sector. It makes it more difficult for our companies to be competitive, more difficult for small business to extend healthcare coverage because the costs continue to skyrocket. This administration did not challenge us to meet that.

The senator suggested that we had an opportunity to commit ourselves to an energy policy that would provide independence. Oh, Senator, you are so right about that. You are so right about that. There are enormous opportunities for us not simply to be energy independent but to grow the economy and, as importantly, to provide hope to rural America, to rural America where there are struggles every single day to keep the farmer, to keep the business open. But our administration did not call for that. There was no call that inspired us, no call that suggested that America lead not just simply in this nation but around the world.

Well, that brings me to all of you. Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he said it is not the critic that counts. It is not the person who shows where a doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is the in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms of high achievement. And if they fail, they fail while daring greatly. So they would never be among those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat. Teddy Roosevelt was calling all of us to a life of a worthy cause, and that is what we must do today. We must commit ourselves to the arena; we must commit ourselves to a life worth living, a struggle worth fighting for. It is before us. But there are several things we shouldn't do if we want to follow President Roosevelt's lead.

Anger. It is easy to be angry. It is easy to say I should have done this, I should have done that; I am so upset at the outcome of an election. We can literally hold our breath until the red states turn blue -- (laughter) -- but that is not going to affect the lives of Americans, it is not going to improve our schools, our healthcare system, our energy independence, our economy, our position in the world. We can't afford to be angry unless we turn that anger into passion and it fuels long-term commitment because that is what it's going to take. There is nothing easy about this road that we are about to travel.

Attitude. We can no longer have a lack of trust in the common judgment and the wisdom of the American people. We can no longer say, people are voting against their interests; I can't understand it. Who are we to say what an individual's interests may be? Who are we to say that something is more valuable than something else? I will tell you that there is great wisdom among Americans. There is an understanding that there is something more valuable than the dollar. It is family, it is faith, it is community, and those are worth fighting for.

And finally, we can't afford to be anti, against everything. President Wilson once said that politics is a clash of causes; it is a joust of principles. Well, if we are going to have that clash, if we are going to have that joust, then we have got to be for something. And it is pretty clear that America is waiting for us. They are desperate to know what we are for. The DLC has an extraordinary opportunity to fashion a positive progressive practical agenda that helps restore the American community and renew the American dream and promise. That is our responsibility. That is what we were designed to do.

President Lincoln once said, the dogmas of the stormy past are not equal to the challenge of today. We must think anew. And so as we think anew, we must act anew. And so I put before you four great national challenges that we as Democrats, we as committed Americans, intend to tackle.

First and foremost: a safe and secure America. We as Democrats must fashion a smarter and more comprehensive effort to secure our homeland and to secure our national security. We must say unequivocally, without hesitation, without qualification, without clarification, we will pay any price, we will bear any burden, as President Kennedy suggested, to ensure the safety and security of every single citizen in this country. It is job one.

Two, an America with a transformed, innovative, creative economy that creates opportunities not just for a narrow few but for all who are willing to work, who are willing to sacrifice, who are willing to commit; an America that is led by world-class learning opportunity, a commitment to early childhood, to our youngest citizens, giving them the tools to learn; a K-12 system that challenges our youngsters and provides for rigorous and relevant high school experiences, that prepares them for the next level of education or life of work; and, as Senator Bayh suggested, affordable access to higher education for every child that wants that opportunity. A comprehensive safety net, a comprehensive safety net for those who are impacted negatively by this global competition we find ourselves in. This isn't a situation where a company is having difficulties; this is a situation in our country where industries are having difficulties, and it is incumbent upon the community to provide more comprehensive help and assistance, to assure those individuals that they can too make the transition. A healthcare system that provides healthcare security for all through innovation and technology, personal responsibility and accountability; energy independence and an embracement of the bio-economy and the enormous opportunities that it unfolds for all of us; a transformed economy that renews for every single American the promise of that American dream.

Third, we must stand firmly, side by side, with moms and dads in this country, moms and dads who are anxious and concerned about the coarseness of society, concerned about the violence and the sex, and the hyper-commercialization that is bombarding their children. And we must say to those moms and dads, we are with you; we are going to help you; we are going to support you.

We must say to them, we will do what it takes to protect your children from those who prey on your children. And let me be specific for just one second. As a governor of a state, I happen to be well aware of the exploding epidemic of methamphetamine in our country. It is an insidious poison. It is extraordinarily addictive, it is very inexpensive, and it is easy to make, and it is pervasive in our country today. It robs children of the opportunity to even consider the American dream.

Democrat governors, Kathleen Sebelius, Brad Henry, Mark Warner, myself and others, have led an effort to make sure that our children are protected. We have simply asked for those ingredients that are so common and so available that are used in the manufacturing of methamphetamine that we put them behind the counter, that we require just a bit more in order to secure them, to secure our children. This simple step has resulted in a 75 to 80 percent reduction in the number of methamphetamine labs in my state and in other states that have passed this legislation. Senator, you are here today and I am pleading with you, and I am pleading with your colleagues, give states the power; don't take it away from us. Give us the power to continue to protect our children. This is a national crisis and it requires tough action. I am asking you to partner with us to make sure our children are protected.

The fourth great challenge: recreating a functioning democracy in this country. As the party out of power, we have a great opportunity to advance reforms. The concept of safe congressional districts, where individuals are only concerned about a partisan primary and not going out to the general election, and being able to debate makes it difficult to create a sense of community within the halls of Congress, which in turn makes it difficult to create a sense of community in our cities and towns.

We need election reform. We need a way in which these districts are drawn fairly, that put us in a position where every two years we have a healthy debate about the future of this country and that we no longer have 80 to 90 percent of folks not being held accountable, not being held responsible to the general electorate. This is a great opportunity for Democrats in addition to budget and tax reform, in addition to ethics discussions and lobbying rules.

The Democratic Party ought to be the party that advances reform. The Democratic Party ought to be the party that advances a functioning democracy to reconnect the people with their government to ensure that they are confident that the decisions that are being made in the capital, in state capitals, and in city councils reflect their needs and not the special interests' needs.

These are four great American challenges. I don't have all of the answers. And even if we had a meeting inside this room and received from all of you the best solutions, the policies you could come up with, we still wouldn't have all of the answers, which is why I have asked Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to work with this association as she has in the past, to lead an American dream initiative, to travel the country, to ask the American public, to ask officials, to ask the brightest minds in this country how can we address these four challenges? How can we restore the American community and renew the American dream? I ask you to work with her and work with us to accomplish that in the next 12 months.

Now, some of you may wonder why community is important to me. I can make the case politically. I can make the case that it leads to the best policies. But let me share with you just a few personal moments.

I started out life in an orphanage in western Pennsylvania. I was fortunate enough to have been adopted. I was adopted into a family that was certainly loving but very troubled in my early years. My mother had a battle with alcoholism and prescription drug addiction. It was an abusive situation in my early years. My parents split up. I lived with my dad and watched as his business suffered, as his health declined. I watched my mother grapple with her devil and overcome it with enormous faith, extraordinary faith, and as a result, reuniting our family so that the last years of my father's life and her life were good years.

During the course of those difficult early years, I spent a lot of time alone. When you are in that type of situation, you don't know when you can bring friends over, you don't know whether your mother is going to be okay or not, you don't know whether she is going to be angry and violent. You spend a lot of time alone. And as a kid, you begin to think. You begin to think about the fact that there has got to be a better place, there has got to be a better way to be a child. You have got to look for help.

In my case, a Little League coach, a fifth-grade teacher, people from the community sort of kept me on the straight and narrow long enough for my family to come back. But as I grew up, I said to myself, someday I am going to find a place. I am going to find a place where I can have children, where my wife and I will be engaged in their upbringing, where they will not just rely on us but will have a community surrounding them, that when they fail there will be someone there to put their arm around them and say it's okay. There will be a better day. And when they succeed, the local newspaper will write about it and 15 or 20 people will clip it out and send it to you and you'll stick it on the refrigerator door. I found that place in my adopted state of Iowa, in the heartland, a place that understands community, that celebrates community, that defines community. There is true greatness in that place, there is nobility in that place, there is an understanding of what it means to be an American in that place.

Ladies and gentlemen, our challenge, our challenge today is to help our party craft a message that speaks to folks in communities like my home town all across America, that explains to them the power of our American community and that there is absolutely nothing, no challenge, no barrier, no problem that cannot be responded to and answered by a united American community. The Democratic Party has an enormous opportunity, and I say a solemn responsibility, to provide that positive agenda that inspires Americans to unite again so that we can be one community, committed to our children, and committed to a brighter and a better future.

God bless you all. Thank you.