TOPICS > Politics

Mario Cuomo speaks at the Democratic National Convention

August 27, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARIO CUOMO:  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It’s good to be back. Well, the last time that we all came together, four years ago, this was a very different party. Many Americans, you recall, had lost faith in us, and frankly, many Democrats had as well.

The truth is that beginning in the 1970s, the heart of our Democratic party, America’s strong striving middle class, began drifting away from us. Now, it wasn’t because we had abandoned our Democratic principles. We never did that. We always continued to believe in all the big things that had always distinguished us from our opponents, especially the one central belief.

We never gave up on the belief that the great family we belong to comes in every different color, every faith, every language. And we believe that not once every four years when they turn the cameras on at the convention. We believe that all the time.

But let’s be honest, despite that belief occasionally in the past, we seem to have forgotten that in this rapidly evolving world being faithful to principle required more than guarding the museum of past policy.

Some of our programs were permitted to wander from their purpose. We slighted the middle class, and we allowed ourselves to be caricatured by our opponents. They said things like, Democrats are addicted to big government, big spending, and big taxes. Democrats are soft on crime. They’re anti-family. They’re anti- middle class.

And those attacks proved to be effective. In 1980, in 1984, millions of middle class Democrats became Reagan Democrats, and more of them drifted toward the Republicans with Bush in 1988. And then came the stark failure of supply-side that was measured in crushing recession and debt. And by 1992, America decided on a new course and a new captain. And the captain was Bill Clinton.

Now, President Clinton fought very hard for us on many, many things early in his presidency, including one distinctly democratic policy. A staple of the Democratic party for many years. He fought for universal health care. But we did not succeed. And there followed a new political force. It ascended the radical right and the rabid revolutionaries led by Newt Gingrich, and in 1994, that force drove Democrats out of power all across this country leaving the president standing virtually alone.

It was a low point in our modern history as a party, and it was less than two years ago. Think of it. Now, less than two years later, most of America believes that Bill Clinton and his incomparable vice president, Al Gore, will win the election on November 5th.

How did things change so dramatically in less than 24 months? What is it? What happened?

Two things, I think. First, America came to understand and to reject the Republicans’ new harshness — policies that would, in effect, punish the least fortunate of us for the sake of the luckiest of us.

And at the same time that America was waking up to their harshness, President Clinton found a way to preserve our party’s basic principles while erasing the stigmas that had been branded upon our reputation over the years.

Who will say today that Democrats are in love with big government and big spending after Bill Clinton has cut the federal government dramatically and brought the deficit down by 60 percent?

Who can argue — who can argue today — who can argue today that Democrats are soft on crime after President Clinton banned assault weapons, controlled handgun sales with the Brady law, and made possible 100,000 new police? Who will say it today? Who will say anti-family? Who will charge us being anti-middle class?

Think again, America. Bill Clinton has done more to help the middle class than any leader in decades. Ten million new jobs. Interest rates low. Inflation almost non-existent. A tax code that asks the rich to carry their fair share, as it should be. Now who gave us — who gave us a humane rise in the minimum wage and portability of health insurance and who gave us family leave over howls of Republican protests? President Bill Clinton did.

You see in less than two years, while making America stronger through these policies, one at a time, the president was lifting the albatrosses from around the neck of this great Democratic Party. So that now, with all those stigmas virtually erased, we are free once again to be Democrats, progressive, constructive Democrats.

And we are ready now to continue the work of restoring the American dream that was invented by Democrats six decades ago. Now, it has not been easy for Bill Clinton as president to get us where we are now. The captain had to choose a complicated course to get across those deep and troubled political waters and not all of us agreed with every turn he made and we said so, because we are Democrats. We are very good at saying so.

And it’s good for our party that we say so, that we speak the truth. Because the truth is that the fundamental beliefs that bind us together as Democrats are so strong that the exertion of occasional disagreements on how to meet our objectives can only show our strength and not our weakness. But some of the president’s choices have been more controversial than others.

The welfare reform bill has been one of the most difficult. Many of us, and I among them, believe that the risk to children was too great to justify the action of signing that bill no matter what it’s political benefits. I know because I’ve spoken with him and with the vice president and with Hillary. I know that they all understood and understand the risk, but the president is confident that he can avert this risk by further legislation before children are actually harmed.

We should all hope and pray that the president is right, but we should so something more than hope and pray. We cannot rely on the Republicans to cooperate with President Clinton to save our children; we need to give the president the strength of a Democratic Congress. We need to help the president make this law better, as he has assured us he will.

And we need to do a lot more even beyond welfare. When we talk of welfare, of course we all want people on welfare to work. So do most of them want to work. But there must be jobs, not in Thailand, not in China, not in Mexico, but here in Chicago and rural Mississippi and in East L.A. And not jobs that can barely be called jobs. Jobs that give real hope. Jobs that give a man, give a woman the dignity of knowing that they can work their way up in this society. Real jobs. Of course, we want only the government that we need. But we continue to insist as Democrats on all the government we need. And that includes, that includes government that will help more Americans find real health insurance that makes sure our day care options get better, not worse.

Of course, we want and demand a balanced budget. No one in the modern history of this country, no president has done more to move toward a balanced budget than has President Bill Clinton. But Democrats, but Democrats, also know that it is a shameful thing that in some of our public schools the highest form of technology available is a metal detector.

We know that our students must have access to the information superhighway, but we also know because we’re honest with ourselves that the information superhighway is a toll road. It has to be paid for and the government can help with that too.

Frankly, it’s one of the best things that government can do for us, help us to educate ourselves as a matter of fact, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters we have at this moment a great opportunity. President Clinton, with the help of a Democratic Congress, can do for education what President John Kennedy did for space. We are the richest, we are the richest, the freest, the most powerful nation in world history. The richest, the most powerful in world history. Is there any reason, is there any reason why we should not be the best educated and the most highly skilled people in this fiercely competitive world?

We are not, but we can be. And President Clinton can lead us there.

If we needed, if we needed one great emphasis to define our commitment to people, is there anything better we could do about the two major problems we have — a middle class that’s working harder but appears to be subsiding, and poor people who are going nowhere — is there anything better we can do for both of those problems than education?

Anything better you could do for the middle class, than make them the best-trained people in the world? Anything better you could do for a poor kid from New York City called Colin Powell, and that is give him a good public school. You did it as well, you did it as well for another poor kid, a poor kid from a place called Arkansas, his name was Bill Clinton. You gave him a public education and he became a great president.

So, so yes, yes, we must give our president a Democratic Congress. We need to ring every doorbell, port and hole (ph) — every voter, get out every vote. We need to work as we have never done before between now and November 5th to take the Congress back from Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, because ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, the Republicans are the real threat. They are the real threat to our women. They are the real threat to our children. They are the real threat to clean water, clean air and the rich landscape of America.

They are the real threat to fairness. They are the real threat to equality. The Republicans are the real threat to an enlightened Supreme Court and don’t you remember that — Don’t you forget that.

The Republicans. This now is the most important idea of all, in all of this welter of sophisticated notions, in all of this quarreling and quibbling politically. Keep your eye on the one big idea: The Republicans are the real threat to the most fundamental of all the ideas, the idea that this nation is at its best only when we see ourselves, all of us, as one family. That is the heart of the matter. That has always been the heart of the matter. That will always be the heart of the matter; those children, those children in pain, are our children. All of them, no matter what their color, they are our children.

Those middle class workers, they are our workers. Those people anxious about those futures, they are our people. They are our elderly Americans. Skipping meals to pay for a prescription, they are our life force, America; they are our life force, those legal immigrants, those legal immigrants who are here eager to help us build America for themselves and for us.

Listen to me, listen to me, please. Listen to me, please. Forget a lot of this political argumentation. Forget about new Democrats, old Democrats, conservative Democrats, liberal Democrats, neo-liberal Democrats. The truth is ageless. Either we make it together, all of us of every faith and color, straight or gay, with or without disabilities, whatever our accent, whatever our task… … wherever we are in this great land, whether we are rich, struggling, desperate, either we make, all of us together, or there is no America worth the gifts that God has given this blessed place.

Yes, yes, of course, there are times when the president and I have not agreed. There will be times again. But President Bill Clinton, Hillary, Al Gore, Tipper, all of them understand, as we must, that basic unchangeable truth. And, because of that, in the end, Bill Clinton spells hope and Republicans spell disaster.

Bill Clinton, Hillary, Al Gore, Tipper, four more years because you have earned it and because America needs it. Four more years. What do you say?

Thank you.