Thank you. First of all, let me tell you how nice it is to pull out your speech and find out it's your JetBlue boarding pass. Second of all, it is delightful to be here on March 25. As President Gearan said, we had no idea that this was going to be an auspicious day and we just picked this day completely at random and knew nothing about what was going to be, isn't that what he said? Let me be serious for just a moment. You have one of the really great college presidents in America here, and he is really (applause) someone who could most likely have any job he wanted in Washington — and any job in a lot of other places – and the fact that he is here is a tribute to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I am very proud to call him my friend and somebody I admire a great deal. So, President Gearan, thank you very much for your leadership.
I want to talk, the title of the talk, (which of course we really didn't have any idea that March 25 was really going to be all about health care), is about President Obama and the New Generation that made him President. So, I want to at least start out with that and then when we get to the question period we can talk about whatever you want. This has been an extraordinary election and I want to talk about the number and the demographics because what I did for four years was to do an enormous amount of research, polling and reaching out to different groups, and this isn't all just about Barack Obama, so I want to talk a little bit about this new generation. I call them the "under 35 generation." When we started, it was really the "under 31 or 32 generation."
When I got to the Democratic National Committee, they were on life support. The committee was actually in pretty good shape; my predecessor raised a lot of money and built a brand new building, but the party was on life support. Their philosophy, essentially, was if we could only be more like the Republicans, then we can beat the Republicans. Well, Harriet Truman once said that if you run a Republican against a Democrat that votes like a Republican, then the real Republican is going to win every time. You can't win by standing up for things you don't believe in because it is pretty obvious that you don't believe in them.
The other thing that I suspected, that we basically cleaned house on, all the consultants in Washington, that we paid a lot of money to tell us how to lose every four years or two. We got a whole bunch of young folks in who did our polling for us, and one of them did a poll which showed me something that I had suspected for a long time, which was that Democrats were values voters too. The Republicans figured this out 11 or 12 years before we did, that people vote their values. Issues do matter, but most of the time people vote their values. And, they will vote values; they will vote for someone they like before they will vote for somebody who just agrees with them on every issue. Bill Clinton, who I still consider to be the greatest political mind in America, once said that people will always vote for someone who is strong and wrong before they will vote for somebody who is weak and right. And that is absolutely true. What the American people want more than anything else is a strong President. They want to see their President win, regardless. I know there are partisans on both sides that don't want to see that, but the vast majority of American people, whether they are conservatives or liberals or somewhere in between, want the President to win and be successful because he is our President, not just the Democrat or Republican President.
And it's true; this shows up in the polls. If you poll a month after the Presidential election, you will get a very different result than you did on election day. Barack Obama, I think, won by let's just say five points or something like that. I think it was maybe 53 to 46 or something. I can't remember exactly, but it was five or six points. If you had polled that January, he would have won by 63 to 37, right? Because about 10 percent of the people will tell you that they voted for the winner even, when they didn't. Now they are not lying— they are not lying. Alright, probably a handful of them are, but all of them inside the beltway, but they are really not lying. They have actually convinced themselves and they can remember clearly that they went right into that voting booth and pulled the lever for the guy that won and this isn't a Republican-Democrat thing; this happens every time. Why? Because people want to be with the winner.
One of the most interesting things about the healthcare debate is about a week before the debate, the polls in favor of healthcare reform were around 40 percent and the polls against were around 48 percent, roughly. There were different polls, some of the gaps were a little smaller, but that was one of the polls. After healthcare reform, the Gallup poll, which is a Republican leaning poll, had 49 percent in favor of the reform that had just passed and 48 against. That is a 17-point swing. Nothing happened; the bill was still the same. Why did suddenly 40 percent go to 49 percent, and 48 percent against go to 40 percent for? Because people want to be with the winner.
People vote their values and Democrats didn't believe that. Democrats thought that people voted on issues and Democratic political advisors were saying, "For God's sake, don't talk about anything controversial. Let's stick to education; let's stick to healthcare; let's stick to things people care about and the whole game will be we'll tell everybody the Republicans are terrible on these issues that you like and we are really good on the issues." People believed them, but they didn't care. What the Republican consultants were saying was, "Talk about the issues that excite people and make them emotional and take a strong stand on them." So, we talked about gay, we did everything we could not to talk about gay rights or abortion and the Republicans went right at them. Turned out that actually most people didn't really agree with the Republican points of view, but the Democrats were so busy saying, "Uh, ugh, er, uh, well I don't know. Well, let me consult my consultant. I don't know." Who is going to vote for a candidate like that? It is called conviction politics. Conviction politics. So, in 2004, your generation increased their turnout by 20 percent over 2000. And they voted in 2004, 56 percent for John Kerry, it was the only age group that John Kerry carried in that election. In 2006, young people increased their turnout by 24 percent over the previous off-year election, and they voted 61 percent for the Democrats running for Congress. In 2008, for the first time in my lifetime and in the lifetime of anybody in this room, more people under the age of 35 years old cast a ballot in a Presidential election in the United States than those who cast a ballot who were over 65. It had never happened in my lifetime before. Barack Obama was elected by people who were under 35 years old and he represents the values of people who are under 35 years old.
Now, there were a lot of Democrats who were jumping up and down, thinking well 63 percent of these young people voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and boy, those people are going to be 39 next time, and 43 the next time, and 47 the next time, and there is never going to be another Republican elected again. From my point of view, of course, that would be a pretty good outcome. But, in fact, that is not going to happen because your generation are not Democrats or Republicans. Your generation is mostly Independents, and I am going to get to a little bit more about that in a minute, but I want to talk about the values of your generation opposed to the values of my generation.
When I lost the Presidential election for the nomination, I sort of came home. You put your life on hold for a year and a half and now you're trying to get everything back together again. We have had these conversations, the family conversations. I had two kids who were teenagers at the time, and in one conversation I remember them both looking at me and saying about the same thing at about exactly the same time. "Dad, you're just too confrontational." For those of you who have teenagers, you appreciate how insulting it is to have your teenagers tell you that their parent is too confrontational. But it was true. Our generation is a confrontational generation. Vietnam; Civil Rights; Women's Rights; Gay Rights; everything was confrontation with our parents' generation. We did re-mold the way we think about each other. But it was an ugly process and it was very confrontational, and it has been confrontational. We have never gotten over it. The so called "culture wars" going-on and on and on. Now, I don't apologize for a lot of that, although some of the actions were extreme, but we did some good things.
I just wanted to tell you that one of them, I say this for the young folks in the audience, because it is hard to believe that this has happened in my lifetime, but my wife graduated from high school in 1971 from Roslyn High School, which is a suburb in New York. And they had two playing fields, a boys' playing field and a girls' playing field and they needed to do a big reconstruction project during her junior year, so they just closed down the field and got rid of girls' sports for a year and that was the end of that. Today we have Title IX. That is illegal; in those days that's the way business was done. So, that was part of the Women's Rights issue.
So, we did change the country, but we were very confrontational and we still are confrontational. It is very polarizing in politics. And, the core question that this young generation asks of our generation is, "When are you going to stop fighting about the things that you have been fighting about for 30 years and get something done about the things that we can agree on?"
My view of leadership is not that one person gets out and says, "Here is what we are all going to do and you're going to follow me." That is not how it works. I believe that leadership comes from the bottom up and that what Barack Obama's genius was not telling everybody what it was that we were going to do. It was taking this energy of this extraordinary young generation and focusing it back like a parabolic mirror in a tight, articulate, well-understood being. But the values came not from Barack Obama, but from the people, under 35 years old, that elected him with this enormous tide of young votes. It is a value of this generation that is different than mine. A value that says we can work together and we can genuinely reach across our differences to find out what it is that we have in common.
The reason that President Obama campaigned so hard on doing things in bipartisanship, and the reason he tried to be bipartisan for so long, is that in fact was what most of the American people want –and that is particularly what his core constituency wants, which is people under 35 years old. We did some really interesting polling about this when I was Chairman of the DNC. I said that I canned all the consultants and hired different pollsters and so forth and so on. When we realized that, or when we confirmed that our suspicions were that Democrats were values voters too, we embarked on a very big expansive effort to do religious outreach to the religious community from the Democratic side. We believe that, in fact, the core values of the Democratic Party were very coincident with the deepest values, particularly the Judeo-Christian religion, of helping others and so forth and so on. And, in fact, the Chief of Staff of the DNC and the woman who ran the Convention was actually a Pentecostal minister – a little known fact. We did a poll among Evangelical Christians because I thought that we should reach out to Evangelical Christians. My philosophy, as you know, is to reach out to all kinds of people who would never vote for us because the first thing you have to do is, if you win, then you have to be the President of all the people, not just of some of the people. Furthermore, if you ever want to win a state like Texas, you can't do it by never going there, which we have been practicing for about 25 years. You do it by actually going there and actually looking people in the eye and asking for their vote. It is a sign of respect to ask people for their vote and if you don't respect them enough to ask them for their vote, then how are they going to respect you when you become the President? So we decided we would reach out to Evangelical Christians.
Here is what our polling showed that was so interesting and so apropos for your generation. If you are over 55 and you are an Evangelical Christian, you know what the two big issues are: mostly gay-rights and abortion. If you are under 35 and you are an Evangelical Christian, in fact the top three issues that you can care about statistically are: 1.), poverty; 2.), climate change; and 3.), Darfur. When I looked at that, our pollster, a guy named Cornell Belcher, and I said "Why aren't we talking to these people? This is a page that could be taken right out of the Democratic Party Platform. Why is it that we aren't reaching out to these people?" So, we did. And the most interesting thing about this is that the Evangelical movement had figured this out themselves. I went to visit with a lot of the prominent Evangelicals, in fact they actually came to me because they were mad at Bush at the time and they sort of wanted to. It was very interesting when we first started to do it; we would meet at these hotels and they would not allow me to come in at the same time. I would have to come five minutes earlier and sit in the room and they would leave 15 minutes later and, after a while, they would send a message to Bush that they were meeting with the Democrats, which was not because they were going to vote for us, but because they were mad at Bush and they wanted to send him messages to watch out. But the most interesting thing was that they were getting it, too. Because the Evangelical preachers are, if nothing else, incredibly good business people.
Joel Osteen is the most prominent Evangelist in America. He bought a basketball stadium which seats 16,000 people and he fills it three and a half times a weekend with a Spanish language service as well as three others. Sixteen thousand people at a time are in his church, which is just really beautiful; you can't believe this is a basketball stadium when you go inside. So I went to see him and his wife, Victoria, and I sat down and we had a nice talk and I said –I am a pretty direct person, so I just said, "Here we are in Texas; immigration is a huge issue, what do y'all talk about when you talk about immigration to your flock?"
And he said, "Oh, we never talk about immigration."
So I said, "If you don't mind my asking, what are your thoughts about abortion?"
"Oh, we don't ever talk about that."
I went to see Rick Warren, who got in some controversy when the President asked him to speak at the inauguration, a conservative Evangelical. He wrote a book called "The Purpose Driven Life." He has written a lot of books, but this thing's sold; it made Harry Potter look like a remainder sale. I think it sold 50 million copies. I read the whole thing, not in one place did I find anything about abortion or gay marriage. This relatively conservative preacher, with a 10,000 seat mega church, which he fills multiple times in one weekend in Orange County, California. Why? Because under 35 year olds don't go to church for the same reason that people in my generation go to church, including Evangelicals. They go to church because they want to find out how they can make their community a better community by serving God. They go to church because they want to feel better about the world and about themselves, and they go to church because they want some guidance about what their mission in life is to be. They do not go to church to be told what the sins are that if they commit they are going to be punished for eternity. It is an enormous difference, and the preachers, the younger preachers like Rick Warren and Joel Ostein, had figured that out long before the Democratic Party had figured that out.
There is a new generation in America and it is not just relatively liberal people on liberal arts campuses. It is people who are Evangelical Christians. There is a shared thoughtfulness about what it is going to take to make the world a better place. Whether you want to put that in the Evangelical terms –"to make the world in God's image"–or the way that you want to put that is in a secular text of a well-educated Northeasterner who (they put it in a different way) –"to make the world a better place so that we can all live together" –whatever you call it, there is a commonality of theme that exists in the younger generation from one spectrum to the other. And there aren't any right wingers or left wingers in the younger generation. Of course there are, but the vast preponderance of people who are under 35 years old have a very different world view of what we have to do to make the world a better place.
It is an extraordinary generation. I don't know anybody in this generation that hasn't served somebody. I don't. Whether they work in building houses in New Orleans for Habitat, or whether they go to a nursing home, or they go to kindergarten and tutor kids, or fourth grade and tutor kids that are behind. Whatever it is, I don't know somebody who hasn't gone someplace to do something for somebody else, or to educate themselves about other parts of the world. It is an extraordinary generation. It is a generation that doesn't necessarily see themselves as nationalists. It is a generation that sees themselves as a part of a generation across the world, and the Internet is partly-responsible for all of this.
President Obama is the first President, I think, of this pretty extraordinary generation. This is the first multi-cultural generation in America. Now American has been a multi-cultural country for 400 years. Our generation, which fought so hard for civil rights for others and ourselves, our generation fought for the civil rights of others, but we grew up in silos for the most part. Your generation grows up with a much broader group, different kinds of friends, of all kinds. So you have a much wider exposure to people if you think and see them as people first, and categories second. Even though we talked the talk, we didn't always walk the walk, in my generation. In your generation, you walk the walk because you have to walk the walk and it is a totally different experience. What does it all mean? Well, the first order of business is you are multicultural generation, America's first, so the first thing you do is elect a multi-cultural President. I would say that is a pretty good start. It is all down-hill from there folks, you ain't going to get any better than this. You just elected your own President, that is pretty good. That is not enough. There are still some similarities between your generation and my generation. Every human being that doesn't love politics in the way that President Gearan and I love politics can't wait to get the election over, even though you worked as a class really really hard to get President Obama elected. The reaction is, when you work hard, is to say "Great we got that done. Thank heavens, now President Obama can fix everything and we can go back to having a lot of fun and doing well in our studies and maybe a little beer pong on the weekends, right?"
It doesn't work that way. Barack Obama is more a creation of you than you are of him. He is President of the United States today because of your ethos—not the other way around. And, guess what? If you think you can take a vacation from politics, then you are not going to have the effect on the world that you thought you were going to have when you elected somebody who said that they were going to change everything.
The biggest mistake that my generation made as a generation, not that there weren't some terrible individual things that were done: the guy that blew up the ROTC building and killed a physics professor, and all that kind of stuff. And that kind of thing goes on; those are kind of outliers. I don't think anybody condones that stuff…
And, I just have to say today that John Boehner, who I agree with (the minority leader in the house), had a great statement today condemning the people who spat on John Lewis and called Barney Frank a bunch of anti-gay names. That is a really good responsible action; I applaud him for doing that. No. Neither side can allow the tactics of anger, hate and violence to influence the debate. I actually think the Tea Party is a good movement because it is a grassroots movement, and I like grassroots politics. Spitting on people and violence and screaming racial epithets is never good, whichever side you are on. It is never excusable. And John Boehner came out and said that today, and he ought to be applauded and thanked for doing that because I think he was sincere in doing that. So, there are always outliers.
What I am talking about is not the outliers though, I think that we did some good things and we worked hard, but we took a vacation from politics. After we exhausted ourselves and exhausted the country in these spasms of change and huge demonstrations, and Watergate, the reform in Congress and all this stuff, we just thought we were owed some time for ourselves and our families and our careers and we took that time and we dropped out of politics. If we didn't drop out, literally, of politics, in some sort of back-to-the-land type of movement, we just didn't pay much attention to it. That is a mistake. I think that the course of the country would have been very different if, instead of backing out of politics and just giving up on it for 10 years or whatever, that we had stayed involved. Maybe not to the intense degree, because you can't maintain that kind of intensity for forever, but that we had stayed involved.
Now, I have said a lot of nice things about your generation; it is incredibly important for you not to do the things that we did wrong and the biggest one was dropping out of politics. You don't get to do that. If you want Barack Obama to do the things that you elected him to do and he doesn't do them, that is not just his fault, it is also your fault. You cannot drop out of politics. Now, I don't expect you when you get to be anything close to my age, or even twice your age, to be sleeping on floors for 20 weeks in a row while you are running around knocking on doors trying to convince people to vote for your candidate. But I do expect that every day, for whether it is five minutes or five hours, that you'll do something that has an effect on your community. The definition of politics is a very broad definition. In fact, although the loyal opposition used to make fun of this, politics is community activism, politics is being on the school board, politics is being on the library board or serving on an unappointed commission. Politics is going down and building a house for your church or synagogue or mosque in some place where they don't have much. Politics, of course, is running for Congress or writing checks or going out and raising money for people or doing computer lists and contacting people which is, of course, politics. Politics is community involvement. Politics is getting people together and organizing them to do something for your community or country or the world that wouldn't get done if it weren't for a large group or a small group of people doing it.
We actually did some of this when I was running for President, in Iowa in 2004 or 2003, rather than just knock on doors and hand out leaflets all the time, at one point we put everyone in a Howard Dean for President (or whatever it was), T-shirt and went out and cleaned up streams and we raised money for teachers who couldn't afford –whose schools or schools districts wouldn't or couldn't pay for, school supplies –who were taking the money out of their own pocket, and we put food in food banks and food shelters. People remembered that stuff because it was about more than just the conventional definition of politics. In fact, the real definition of politics was, the real definition of politics in this country for us to succeed as a country is not me, me, me, me, vote for me. It is us, us, us, us; work together for the greater good. When we forget that, or we drop out of politics, or work only for the narrow political edge, what is good for my history, what is good for my family, what is good for us as a country. That is what you have to remember, so my charge to you is, you can't stop now. If you think it was over when Barack Obama got elected, you are wrong. He doesn't do all the work for yourself.
In fact there is a great story about a Senator who was a little bit more conservative than F.D.R right in the depths of the Depression. He came from a tough state for his party and he went to President Roosevelt and President Roosevelt was trying to get him to vote for something and he just said "Mr. President, don't you understand?" You have to make us do this. Well, that's your job. You have to make us in the political class do this. And we don't do it automatically.
Washington is a very strange place I'm very fond of. Now, look, I have worked in Washington for four years; I hated everything about Washington when I came to Washington, as the DNC Chairman. I actually like most of the people that work there, I think they are hardworking. I think for the most part, they are bright and conscientious, they work ungodly hours. I will repeat, Washington is a very strange place. I like to say, (the best way I can say it is for it to relate to the young people here) is it is like middle school on steroids. It really is. It is all about whose place is what, who's up and who's down, who got in the paper. I have been told … you know when you go on television you have to get made up, and I thought it was a bunch of crap when I first did it. But in fact you really look pretty awful if you don't have it because especially in high definition … but, I have been told that there are people in Congress who, when they get made up, they wear their makeup around all day long so as if to say, "I got on television today did you?" This is a ridiculous place. The first thing that is thought by the American Senate is not what is this going to do for the country, but is how am I going to get my committee and who is going to like this and who isn't going to like it. And, what is this going to do, and what can I get out of that person what they think. This is insanity. This is a rarified club of 100 people. Washington is the last place to figure out what is going on in America and it is a tie between the Washington Post and the Washington State Senate as to who knows what the last thing is going on in Washington D.C.
What's the fix? You are. It does make a difference when you e-mail your Congress people and the President. We thought our generation was great; we got a million people to march on the mall. Your generation is much smarter; you send a million e-mails and shut down Congress' e-mail system for three days. It is incredible effective; they notice. But they also notice if you don't do it and if you don't do it they don't think you care. If you are worried about what is in the health care bill, you ought to say something because, if you don't, they won't think you care. You have to stay involved. It's part of what you owe the country. Now, I don't say you owe the country because I want you to be a good citizen. I am not going to sit here and give you the citizenship lecture. I am just not going to do that. You owe the country because you owe yourself. Democracy is a human creation and like every human creation, it will die and fall apart if you don't maintain it. I used to think that democracy was the highest form of government and therefore, once you've got there, we could focus on other things. It is not true. Democracy can collapse and disappear and it has. Adolph Hilter was a democratically-elected Chancellor of Germany. He destroyed the democracy in Germany. Russia, before it became the Soviet Union, had a short period where it was a democracy after deposing the Czar. To this day, it is not a democracy. History is full of examples where countries were, became democratic countries but they were unable or unwilling to maintain their democracy either because there was a strong armed force or because they were apathetic, or because they didn't understand and they didn't do it and their democracy disappeared.
This really is an extraordinary country. I don't consider myself whatever that phrase is that right-wing uses— an American exceptionalist. I think that an individual American is not better than an individual European or an Asian or an African or Latin American, but I do think America is a greater country, and I'll tell you why. If you look at the documents, the core founding documents of the United States: the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, there is something in there that is different than almost every other constitution. It is a sense of hope and optimism. The reason that people admire America is, yes we have ingenuity and all this business, but they admire America because we do things that they would never consider are possible.
I spent a lot of time in Europe, mostly on business. I work part-time for a democracy building organization. I go over there and talk to parties about how to revitalize themselves, especially in the Balkans and places like that, They were very anti-Bush as you know. When Barack Obama was elected, they were extremely ecstatic and you know there was that huge welcome in Berlin before he was even made President. So I tried to figure out why that was and it's because, once again, we totally confounded the Europeans. In the European experience of thousands of years of civilization, they don't do things like elect a black man whose family, or whose people, were slaves and were not even allowed to vote 40 years before. They don't do things like that in Europe. America was back. We were doing extraordinary things, out of the box things. Things that nobody else would do. Why? Because we weren't going to be held back by conventional wisdom and cynicism. We did believe things could change and, by God, we changed them. It is an extraordinary country that we have because we are as a people, founded with the idea that people are basically good. And they believe in so many other places around the world that people aren't basically good and their whole government structure is structured around the idea that, "We're not so hot, so we better have a lot of scriptures about what and how we can do things." Our idea is that we are pretty great and that people are basically good. We need guidance, we need help, we need limits, of course, because we are certainly fallible, but that if we only work harder we will get there. The truth is, that America makes an enormous number of mistakes and we are never going to get to the perfect place, but the difference is that we will always try hard to get to the place because we can believe it. The harder you try, the closer you get. That's what is special about America.
So my charge to you again. This is an extraordinary country and my generation has made multiple mistakes and we are too confrontational. We certainly are for what is needed for today, but as John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961, "We now pass the torch to a new generation." You have elected your first President. You need to support that President, not by agreeing with everything— Lord knows there has statistically got to be some Republicans in here -- not by agreeing with him on everything. Agreeing with the President does not mean supporting the President, you have to support him by staying active: active in your community, actively involved in politics. I don't care what party you are in, I want you to be actively involved in politics and standing up for what you believe in. In a civil, thoughtful way that is your generation, which I think is so extraordinary, is with real courtesy and respect and I think of the dignity of others who disagree with you.
This is an extraordinary country and my last thing that I am going to say is that a little warning shot to the Democrats. There are a lot of Democrats who believe that, since you vote 63 percent for Barack Obama that you are all Democrats. It's not true. What you are is accepting. You have grown up with openly gay and lesbian friends from high school and you have them in college. You have grown up with African-American, Hispanic, Muslim, White people who are your friends. You are not ever, ever going to put up with rhetoric based on anger, you are not going to put up with people who are trying to put gay-marriage on the ballot, you are not going to put up with the immigration rhetoric that came out of the United States Senate during the debate last year. You are never going to do that because you have grown up with different kinds of people and you see them as human beings and people, not objects to be pointed at in order to win elections. But, so as long as the Republican party has the problem, the Democrats are safe, but you are more fiscally-conservative than the liberal wing of my party is and, when the Republicans start talking about money, and stop talking about different groups and pointing the finger at them, that is the day that the Democratic party better get their act together and balance the budget because that is the day that you are all going to be the swing voters. Thanks very much.