Our younger daughter Katherine is a rising senior in college and doing well. I remember so clearly sitting at her graduation from high school a few years ago, and reflecting on the difference between her journey to that milestone and my own nearly 30 years before.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, much of that time on welfare. I lived with my mother, my sister, my grandparents and other occasional relatives in our grandparents’ 2-bedroom tenement. My mother, sister and I shared one of those bedrooms and a set of bunk beds, so we would rotate from the top bunk to the bottom bunk to the floor, every third night on the floor. I went to big, broken, overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to read, but I don’t remember ever owning a book until 1970, when I got my break through a program called A Better Chance to go to Milton Academy, a boarding school outside of Boston. For me, that was like landing on a different planet.
Our daughter Katherine’s early experiences were very different. She’s always had her own room, for most of her life in a big house in a leafy neighborhood where I used to deliver newspapers when I was a student at Milton Academy. By the time she got to high school, she had already traveled on 4 continents, she knew how to use and pronounce a “concierge,” and she had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.
Once when Katherine was 5 years old her kindergarten class was studying the changes in the seasons — summer, fall, winter, spring. Her homework assignment was to describe the four seasons to Mom and Dad. So, when the time came, she described, in minute and accurate detail, her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC. “First you drive up and the doorman takes your car,” she said.
Five years old! One generation. One generation and the circumstances of my life and family were completely transformed.
Now, that story may not get told as often as we’d like, but it gets told more often in this country than anywhere else on earth. That is an American story. To be able to imagine a better way for ourselves and our family, and then to work for it, IS the American Dream.
Well, my friends, in the minds of too many today, the American Dream is up for grabs. Thanks to the global economic collapse, millions of people have lost their jobs, their savings. Thousands have lost their homes. Many, maybe some of you, have lost confidence.
In Massachusetts, and perhaps here in Florida, some folks harbored doubts about the American Dream even before the Great Recession.
Four and a half years ago, when I first came to office, young people and jobs were leaving our state. Roads and bridges were crumbling. We had enacted health care reform, but had yet to implement it. Stem cell research was banned. Our clean energy potential was stuck in ideological stalemate. The poor were in terrible shape, and the middle class was just a paycheck or two from being poor — and deeply anxious about it. And we had had 16 years of Republican governors more interested in having the job than doing the job.
So, we set out on a journey to change that, to revive the American Dream. Why? Because we owe a generational responsibility to leave things better for those who come behind us.
And when the economy collapsed just as we were getting started, I didn’t cut and run, like a bunch of the folks who had this job before me. I didn’t look for scapegoats or lose my temper or my way. Instead, just like families across our Commonwealth and our country, we took a fresh look at our plan, stiffened our resolve, and – with our values foremost in mind — made choices.
Like everybody else, we cut spending and headcount, and slimmed down or eliminated programs. But we also chose to invest in education, in health care and in job creation, because we all know that educating our kids, having health care you can depend on, and a good job is the path to a better future.
And that’s why today and for five years running we lead the Nation in student achievement.
That’s why we lead the Nation in health care coverage, with over 98% of our residents insured.
That’s why we are creating jobs faster than 46 other states, and why our GDP is growing twice as fast as the national rate.
That’s why we lead the Nation in energy efficiency and veterans’ services.
And that’s why in our Commonwealth you can marry anyone you love.
It’s also why — with labor at the table — we have not only closed our budget gap and strengthened our bond rating, but also made meaningful changes in our public pension and health benefits systems, in our schools, and in our transportation bureaucracy that had eluded us for decades before.
None of this is happening by accident. It’s happening because of the choices we are making, choices based on our values. We have much more to do, of course, but we are on the right track — because we placed our faith not in unfettered markets, but in our values and our common sense.
Republicans would make different choices. Let me be clear that I am Governor of all the people of our Commonwealth: people of either party or no party; the ones who voted for me and the ones who did not; the ones who agree with this or that policy choice and the ones who don’t. But the values that inform my choices are those of a Democrat. And the values – and therefore the choices — of the National Republican Party today are very different. Coming into 2012, we had better be crystal clear about that.
After you cut through all their slogans, all that Republicans are saying is that if we just shrink government, cut spending, crush unions, and wait, all will be well. Not only has history repeatedly proven that wrong, they don’t actually believe any of it.
The same folks who say that government should be small and spending should be limited are responsible in the Bush administration for the biggest run up in the size of the federal government and the largest increase in the federal deficit in history.
The same folks who are attacking the principle of public sector collective bargaining today will make an exception for any union that endorses their candidate.
They don’t believe what they say.
The same folks who say religious fundamentalism is a danger abroad are busy promoting it at home.
The same folks who say investing in our infrastructure is wasteful at home were building schools in Iraq in the last administration.
The same folks who say government should stay out of our private affairs want to tell women whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy and legislate whom you or I can marry.
Willing to say or do anything to win power, Republicans have abandoned any sense of balance or responsibility for our common future. And when you call them on it, they turn to bullying and belittling.
We Democrats need to be better than that. But that means more than having a strong argument for what we are against. We need to be clear about what we are for.
I am proud to be a Democrat, but sometimes Democrats get on my last nerve. After our special election last year, when a Republican won the seat long held by our beloved Ted Kennedy, Democrats all over America started acting like Chicken Little. We turned to navel gazing about our message and our policies, asking ourselves what we needed to say or do to win elections instead of what we need to say or do to help our country. To me, the loss of the House to the Radical Right last fall was as much about a loss of our own self-confidence as it was about a loss of votes.
So, the bigger question is what do we believe? And are we willing to work for it?
We believe in equality, opportunity and fair play, bedrock principles that define not just what America does but who America is.
We believe government is about people, not abstract policy, that campaigns are about vision and values, not winning at any cost.
We believe in an economy that grows opportunity out to the marginalized, not just up to the well-connected.
We believe that we owe the next generation a better country than we found, not quick fixes that push the real solutions off to another day.
We believe that in good times and in crisis alike we should turn to each other, not on each other.
Well, if that’s what we believe, here’s my message, Democrats, plain and simple: if we want to win in 2012, if we want to keep Barack Obama in the White House and move our country forward, if we want to earn the privilege to lead, it’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe. What the people want and the country needs is not the politics of convenience, but the politics of conviction.
Because different convictions lead to different choices.
Some of our choices in Massachusetts, and some of those facing our Nation, make even some of our traditional allies uncomfortable. But these times demand more than making each other comfortable. The times demand that we reconnect with our highest and best values, and face up to the hard choices before us with candor and courage, because doing so today will make us stronger tomorrow.
For an awful lot of people in America today, the American Dream is up for grabs. People are questioning that simple defining notion that here in America you can make a better way for yourself and your family, the very notion that has made us the envy of the world. I am proud of the work we are doing to restore the American Dream in Massachusetts. But as a resident of our Commonwealth, as a Democrat, and as an American, I’m not yet satisfied. And you shouldn’t be satisfied either.
We can’t be satisfied until every single resident who seeks work can find it.
We can’t be satisfied until a great school is within reach of every young person, not just the kids in wealthy suburbs.
We can’t be satisfied until health care is as accessible across America as it is in Massachusetts, and as affordable as it is accessible.
We can’t be satisfied until we bring simplicity to government and equity to our tax system.
We can’t be satisfied until seniors can age in their own communities instead of in nursing homes, and people with disabilities can live independently instead of in institutions.
We can’t be satisfied until we have enough police on the streets and enough stability at home to end youth violence.
We can’t be satisfied until we start treating others, as Scripture teaches, the way we ourselves would want to be treated – even if they come from a foreign land.
We can’t be satisfied until we bear our generational responsibility, our responsibility to leave this place better than we found it, to lift one another up rather than tear one another down.
These are the choices Democrats stand for: on creating jobs, on schools, on health care costs, on climate change, on government reform, on social and economic justice — are we going to be satisfied or are we going to finish what we started? We worked hard two years ago all across America to change the guard. Now it’s time to guard the change.
So, Democrats, quit waiting for the pundits to tell us who the next Senator or Member of Congress is going to be. Stop blindly accepting that economic indicators or polls will determine who will win the presidency. Politics is not like the weather – we don’t have to wait for someone else to tell us whether it will rain or shine. In politics, we can shape our own future. By running on our values and working at the grassroots, that is precisely what we did together in 2008. In 2012, let’s do it again.
I’m in for 2012. Are you? Well, if you’re in, fill out the white cards at your table and give them to the volunteers at the doors on your way out. We can win if we reach down deep and remind ourselves and others why we ought to win and what kind of future we want to shape.
* * *
I visited a jobs club not long ago in Quincy, a small city outside of Boston. Jobs clubs are groups of unemployed people who come together at our career centers to encourage and support each other. This one jobs club has moved their meetings to a local restaurant, because they have been out of work for a year and half, almost two in some cases.
The folks I met – about 20 in all — were mostly in their 50s, like me. I think the oldest was 61. As they told their stories, one by one, it was clear that each of them had done everything they were supposed to do. They did their jobs, raised their families, saved what they could, helped out in the community. Then one day they got a visit or a note from the boss saying that because of the downturn in the economy their services were no longer needed. They talked about what losing their jobs and their means of providing has done to their lives, and to their confidence in themselves and their country.
These are the folks everybody tells us are angry. But the people I met weren’t angry. They’re scared. One man told me that he’s not sure what will happen when his extended unemployment benefits expire. He’s not worried whether he can take a planned vacation. He’s worried about groceries. In America!
No one I met at that jobs club thinks government can or should solve every problem in their lives. They just want to know that their government sees them. That their government cares about them. That their government is doing what we can to help them help themselves.
Every day I go to work and every night I go to bed, the people I met at that jobs club and the ones like them I encounter all over our Commonwealth are on my mind and my heart. They are central not just to our work, but to our values as Democrats and as Americans. It’s for them that we need to finish what we started. It’s for them that Democrats have to stand up again for the politics of conviction.
The American Dream is worth fighting for. I say that not just as a governor or a Democrat, but as someone who has lived it. Believe in that. Commit to that. Stand tall and fight for that, with optimism and effort, with hope and hard work — and by the grace of God not only will we win in 2012, but we will deserve to win, and our best days will lie ahead.