Today we are in a space rich with our nation’s history, a place where citizens have gathered for more than a century to debate the great issues of the day.
From this platform and at this very podium Abraham Lincoln spoke nearly 150 years ago as a presidential candidate. When Lincoln came here, he did not shy away from talking about the greatest threat our republic faced at that time the terrible institution of human slavery.
It was his belief in the dignity of all people, and his conviction that a government of, by and for the people should not perish from this earth, that drove him to challenge his country to be better than it was.
We do Lincoln justice to remember what he fought for, and we honor his memory when we do not limit ourselves to small aspirations, but confront the greater challenges that our nation faces.
In this age, what is at stake is American democracy itself. The flood of special interest money into politics is corrupting our democracy and rewarding those leaders who sell off our country to the highest bidder.
Too many of our leaders have made a devil’s bargain with corporate and wealthy interests, saying “I’ll keep you in power if you keep me in power.”
And in all that our government touches -- our economy, our environment, our energy sources, our health care system, and even our foreign policy -- our leaders are serving their contributors’ interests at the expense of the public interest.
The great question is, how do we run a campaign which best challenges the corruption of the old order and the influence of organized wealth?
I am standing here only because of you-- as politicians across the nation wonder how we did it. The answer of course is that you did it.
Today our campaign faces a choice -- and the people who built this campaign will be the ones to make it.
I am asking you to decide whether our campaign will decline public financing or accept federal matching funds.
This campaign has been an amazing journey for me and the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have joined our cause. We have started a debate to bring meaning back to our politics. We have used technology to bring people back into the political process. We have launched a campaign not just to win an election, but to revive our democracy and help restore our role as an idealistic moral force in the world.
Over the past six months, this campaign has shocked the political establishment. We demanded a debate on the wisdom of war in Iraq. We questioned the rationale used by this President to lead our country into a pre-emptive war, without the sanction of the United Nations and without the support of many of our greatest allies.
This is a campaign that now asks the President to explain the misleading and faulty intelligence he put before the American people.
It is a campaign that demands to know why we continue to risk the safety of our forces in Iraq by refusing to work with the international community.
It is a campaign that demands from this President and the Congress accountability and that not one penny of the funding for Iraq’s reconstruction goes to line the pockets of Halliburton or any of this administration’s other friends.
And the American people responded. You have responded by joining together and organizing in over 850 Meetups around the country. You have responded by sending emails, writing letters, making phone calls, and knocking on doors. You have responded by volunteering for clean-ups, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, donating food and providing disaster relief.
Almost half a million Americans have joined our campaign. You shattered the record for a Democratic candidate by raising 14.8 million dollars last quarter making over two-hundred thousand contributions at an average of just 77 dollars.
These numbers send a message to the political elites. They send a message to the special interests that fund too many campaigns and pay too many lobbyists’ salaries. They send a message to the establishment that the American people will no longer accept business as usual. It is time for real change, not just the rhetoric of change.
You have given us a great gift. In politics today, members of both parties are beholden to those who fund their campaigns. An election system relying on oil money can’t talk honestly about energy. An election system relying on pharmaceutical money can’t talk honestly about health care reform.
But through hundreds of thousands of $77 donations, you did something no one thought possible. You freed this campaign from being beholden to anyone but the people themselves.
But this is what we face:
In the last two elections, politicians, political parties and interest groups have spent 5.1 billion dollars. Those billions came from less than 5% of the public. And before this election is finished George Bush plans to add 200 million dollars more from large corporate interests.
Where does all this money come from? Well, in the last six years, despite massive corporate scandals and the crash of the NASDAQ, the financial services industry managed to find almost 168 million dollars to influence the political process.
A pharmaceutical and health products industry that can’t afford to sell our seniors cheaper prescription drugs did manage to find 60 million dollars to influence our elections.
The oil and gas industry got the best deal. It only needed to give 64 million dollars to be able to sit in Vice President Cheney’s office and write our energy policy.
Last year the Congress passed the McCain/Feingold law. It was supposed to take the corrupting influence of large corporate interests out of our political process.
Yet not even before the ink was dried, President Bush betrayed this bill’s intent and spirit. George Bush announced he would bypass the matching system and raise 200 million dollars for a primary election in which he faces no opponent.
George W. Bush calls his most powerful money-bundlers “Pioneers” and “Rangers,” who bundle together hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.
The bundlers are people like James Harless, Chairman of International Industries, a coal industry group, who put together 355 thousand dollars to get George Bush elected.
They are people like Steven Letbetter of Reliant Resources, who put together 214 thousand.
They are people like Frederick Webber, former president of the American Chemistry Council, who bundled another 221 thousand.
They are people like Walden O’Dell, a 2004 Pioneer, who is also manufacturing electronic voting machines to count our votes, and has said that he is, quote, “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year.”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, the majority of reconstruction contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan went to George Bush’s contributors.
They gave him the money, and he gave them the contracts.
This is not a liberal fight or a conservative fight. People of all ideologies believe our government has been bought and paid for. So many Americans have even given up hope that anything can ever be done about it. They believe our government, which was once in the hands of the people, has been taken away from us.
This is not about Democrats and Republicans. It is about our democracy and our republic.
The present campaign finance laws were an attempt to remove the influence of special interests in our politics. Many in Washington talk about reform. You have done it. Our campaign has removed the power of special interests and placed it into the hands of the people, more successfully than any campaign in history.
The Bush campaign has done the opposite. They are placing power in the hands of the special interests more blatantly and dangerously than any campaign in history.
The Bush campaign is selling our democracy so they can crush their political opponents. We cannot let this happen.
This is the one Democratic campaign which has the opportunity to fight back against the onslaught of the Bush attacks between March and August -- spending caps would leave a publicly financed Democrat broke by next spring.
A Democratic nominee with no money is exactly what the Bush campaign is hoping for. Ours is the only campaign with a chance to defend itself during those five months.
We have the opportunity to match the Bush campaign dollar-for-dollar. But that’s not what’s incredible.
What’s incredible is, we can match his 200 million dollars of special interest money with 200 million dollars of our own raised through millions of ordinary Americans donating whatever they can afford.
This is the first campaign in decades to be able to give the people a choice between a President who awards tax giveaways and government contracts to political contributors, and a candidate who is owned by no one -- except the American people.
No one else could claim that. And this opportunity is not possible because of anything I did. You made it possible. Which is why it is your decision.
And who could have anticipated that a campaign which began with no money and little support would be forced to make this choice? We shouldn’t be in this position. No campaign should. We should have public financing that works in this country.
We have two choices. The first will be for us to decline federal matching funds. It will mean walking away from 19 million dollars. This will place the burden of funding the campaign entirely on our supporters, but with the knowledge that this may be the only way to win this election and reform our political system.
The second choice will be for us to accept public financing. Unfortunately despite the law’s best intent, it will hinder our reform efforts while rewarding the Bush campaign’s attempts to further increase the power of special interests. It will cap our spending at $45 million, giving the Bush campaign a spending advantage of $170 million, which they will use to define and distort us from March to August.
So today, we are sending ballots to all of you who have joined this campaign, and you will vote on whether we should decline public financing or accept federal matching funds.
The vote will end Friday at midnight and we will announce results Saturday at noon.
In our political system, there are three ways to effect change in our country. The first is through Washington politics, with status quo solutions. But our problems will not be solved by those who created them.
The second way is for a shining figure from outside Washington to come in and rescue the people. But time and time again, we’ve watched the outside hero become the Washington insider. Promises are broken and the people are forgotten.
But there is a third way to change America. It is built into our Constitution, and it comes from our oldest tradition. It is for the people to change the system for themselves.
I am putting this decision in your hands -- to prove that while this President may let his most powerful contributors shape his policies, the next President will be beholden to only the people.
Only when the people have regained control of their government can true campaign reform be enacted.
But no matter what happens with the vote that begins today, nothing can change the story of how this campaign has changed politics you have already written that story.
We are at a critical point in our history. We face a crisis where the political process is not working for most people and in fact, works all too well for the very few.
Politics is dominated by cynicism instead of hope. Americans have become alienated from political life at every level. Far too many people have become convinced that politics is not the solution, but part of the problem.
But real change has always come from the bottom-up. Through the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, America has changed when the people have changed it.
We sense that something has gone wrong in politics today -- but we must also understand that we have the power to stand up for what’s right. We have the power to rise and meet the challenge as other Americans have done before us.
We must join the first generation of our republic, which fought for self-government against a political establishment that seemed immovable.
When Lincoln spoke here, he said, “Let us have faith that right makes might.”
Our campaign is a movement to prove once again that right makes might. It is a movement to reduce the influence of privilege and organized wealth on the political process so that we may liberate government to freely debate and try to resolve the great issues of our time.
If we succeed, as I believe we will succeed, we can establish a government
whose only concern is the welfare of our people and the security of our