Senator Joe Lieberman
Remarks at the 2002 DLC National Conversation
New York, NY
July 29, 2002
As Prepared
It's my honor, as a former DLC chairman, to be here among both old New Democrats and new New Democrats in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. . . a city that, not of its choice, but consistent with its character, has emerged from September 11th as a powerful symbol of America's incredible resilience. . . a city that proves that whatever our enemies try to do to us, they can never diminish the American spirit, divide the American people, or defeat America.  We are one strong nation under God and will remain indivisible and undefeatable with liberty and just for all.

But that's not the only reason why the DLC chose to host this important gathering in New York.  No, Al From, being the big thinker that he is, had an experiment in mind.  He invited Tom Daschle, John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and me here to speak all of us, one after the other -- to see, once and for all, whether this really is the city that never sleeps.

I want to congratulate Evan Bayh, Al From, Will Marshall, and Bruce Reed, and the entire DLC-PPI team for putting on another outstanding meeting, and reminding not just New Democrats but all Americans of the need, now more than ever, for new ideas to realize our enduring values and our shared vision of a more perfect union.

I say now more than ever because we renew this national conversation in a country that is very different than it was when we met last summer in Indianapolis.  We have far more urgent challenges to tackle together.  The peace of the post-Cold War era has been shattered by vicious terrorists.  And the precedent-setting prosperity of the Clinton years has been shaken by a declining economy and a soaring mistrust in our markets.

Indeed, as we gather for this conversation, we hear less and less the sound of Walt Whitman's America singing the praises of progress, and more and more the sound of Worldcom's America wringing the last dollar out of their crooked books creating a crisis of confidence in corporate America that has cost us more than seven TRILLION dollars in lost shareholder value and incalculable additional losses in the confidence of millions of Americans in their families' future.

But let us be clear that this is a scandal of lost values as much as lost value.  Not content with a booming economy and a bullish market, a lot of powerful people turned into con artists and thieves to satisfy their personal greed.  In the process, they broke our basic social contract.  They forgot that in America, as we New Democrats have always said, opportunities come with responsibilities.  Our free enterprise system gives business the freedom and opportunity to flourish and when it does, it produces wealth, jobs, and better lives for the American people.  But in return, we expect business to play by the rules and honor their word, and our system depends on it to work.

We expect business executives to act responsibly and to play by the rules.  If they don't, the system and the American people suffer.  It is times like these, when the private sector and personal values break down, that public officials must step up -- not with hollow cheerleading, or petty jeering, but with straight talk about right and wrong, with tough decision-making, and with balanced law-making.

This is a moment that demands economic leadership.  The kind of progressive leadership that Bill Clinton and Al Gore provided throughout the 1990s, as they remade our party into the party of economic growth and fiscal discipline, reconnected it to the mainstream of American values, and renewed the public's faith in government as an agent of change and empowerment.

Unfortunately, we have not seen such economic leadership from President Bush. In the months since December 2, the day Enron declared bankruptcy, the President has shown little or none of the moral clarity and strength of purpose he demonstrated in the aftermath of September 11th.

In fact, when it comes to the economy, and the current corporate accounting crisis, President Bush and his Republican friends in Congress have responded with timidity instead of toughness, with obsolete ideas and outdated ideologies, and with special favors for special interests.  That is not economic leadership.

The President had to be dragged kicking and screaming to support the real reforms in corporate accountability favored by bipartisan majorities in the Senate.  And while the President fiddled over the last half year, the savings and security of tens of millions middle class investors burned.  That is not economic leadership.

We New Democrats, on the other hand, showed during the 1990s and are showing today that we know how to provide economic leadership.  And I am confident we will continue to do so as long as we continue to challenge orthodoxies on all sides, to remain true to our vision and our values, and to apply the lessons we learned from the 1990's about growing the economy.

First, though, we have to correct some revisionist history coming from the White House, which says that our economic ills today are a "hangover" from a "binge" economy of the 90's.  Talk about a con job.  The gains we made in the 1990s were not just real, they were record-breaking.  And to suggest otherwise, or even worse, to blame this progress for the problems in our markets now that's not leadership, that's ludicrous.

Go ask the 22 million people who filled the new jobs that were created.  Ask the record numbers of people who bought a new home or sent their kids to college.  Ask the millions of African-Americans and Hispanics who saw their standards of living rise as never before.

Our policies succeeded because after years of mounting deficits, President Clinton and the Democratic Congress had the courage to change course.  We got our government out of hock.  We cut taxes strategically to lubricate the private sector's engines of growth.  We made smart investments in the New Economy incubators of innovation and education.  And we opened markets around the world for American goods and services.  Like any successful business, we had a growth strategy. We stuck to it.  And it worked.

In contrast, the Bush Administration suffers from a profound economic leadership deficit, and the American people are now suffering from it too.  This Administration has no growth strategy, except their one-note plan that could fit on the back of a shampoo bottle -- "Cut taxes, increase spending, borrow, repeat."  That's not a recipe for a growing economy and more jobs, but for exploding deficits and lost jobs.

Just look at the Bush record to date.  In just 18 months this Administration unraveled the fiscal discipline we worked eight years to restore.  They've plunged us from a $260 billion surplus in FY 2000 to at least a $165 million deficit in FY 2002, and as a result of their future budget requests, will force us to raid $2 trillion from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

The longer-term projections are even more alarming.  Once again we hear the ticking of the restarted national debt clock just a few blocks away from here on Sixth Avenue.  It was only a few years ago that we were debating about how quickly we could retire the entire debt.  Now we're debating how high we must raise the debt ceiling.

And for what?  Mostly to pay for a gigantic tax cut that does not stimulate investment, innovation, or growth, a tax cut that is premised on the discredited supply side theories of the 1980s that drove us into a fiscal ditch in the first place.  That's the economic equivalent of cutting Jason Giambi to sign Bob Uecker.

If that has not been bad enough, the next step of the Bush Administration's one-note economic plan is to throw away another $4 trillion to make those overbloated, underachieving tax cuts permanent.  That will only create a bigger debt, higher interest rates, and longer odds that our government will be able keep our Social Security and Medicare promises to the oncoming Baby Boomers.

Maybe this is where we can really see Enron's influence over the Bush White House.  It looks familiar, doesn't it?  Give most of the money to the guys at the top.  Jeopardize the retirement security of average workers. And use all kinds of accounting tricks and cynical excuses to cover up your debts.  Enron accounting has met the Bush budget.

The consequences of the Bush economic leadership deficit go deeper than that.  Because it has spent all of the surplus Americans earned -- and more -- on the tax cut, and has no money left to invest in America's future, this Administration is breaking the promise the President and Congress made in passing last year's education bill to invest in reform as we insist on results, leaving $6 billion behind.  It has offered no plan to seize the tremendous opportunities that broadband technology provides, which most experts say is crucial to the resuscitation of the telecom sector and unleashing the next generation of innovation and growth.  And it cannot afford a decent prescription drug plan for our parents or better health care for all of America's children.

Instead, it is content to conduct business as usual, guided by a lazy dependence on laissez-faire ideology and a team of regulators who too often protect those they are supposed to regulate instead of protecting the public's safety and security. And that's the real difference here.  We as New Democrats have always believed that the private sector is the engine of growth, but we also believe that we need sound and balanced economic leadership from government to create the environment in which the economy can grow.  And that includes real rules to ensure fair play from businesses for investors and consumers.

Look at how the Bush Administration responded to the recent wave of corporate crime and fraud.  First they denied there was a problem, then they said the problem was limited to a few bad apples, and then they said the solution was to just throw the bad apples in jail, and finally they tried to blame it on Bill Clinton.  Give me a break.

What can we do together now to get America's economy moving again?  Our economy is sound, as President Bush has said growth is high, inflation is low, and productivity is solid.  But we should not underestimate, as President Bush has, the impact these scandals have had and will have, now that mistrust in the market is eroding consumer confidence. And when it comes to the economic fundamentals that the federal government can do most about -- balancing the federal budget and investing in education and innovation -- the Bush Administration has been AWOL, which in this case is away without leadership.

My fellow New Democrats, it is up to us -- as the best idea center in our party and American politics to make up this economic leadership deficit, to lead our party and our country in crafting a progressive economic plan that will not only restore public confidence but also restart us on the path to sustained prosperity and a growing middle class.

Our movement has long believed that you can't be pro-jobs and anti-business.  That's why we New Democrats are proud to call ourselves pro-business.  Now we should make clear that the best way to help business is to come down hard on those who betray its rules of fair play.  When unethical executives subvert the common good, when they exploit loopholes, mislead workers and investors, and in the process undermine the very markets on which we all rely, they do not deserve to be left alone.  They deserve to go to jail.  Either play by the rules, or stay behind bars.

My father was a small businessman, and he taught me many lessons I'll never forget one of which is that business has responsibilities that go beyond their own bottom line.  That's why some of us berated the major entertainment companies for mass marketing mass murder to our children.  That's why we've drawn a line in the tundra to ban oil drilling in the pristine Arctic wilderness.  And that's why we have come together behind tough corporate accountability legislation that says to executives: we won't let you abandon your workers, cheat your investors, demean the rest of the business community, and hurt our economy.

My father also taught me that, as much as government and law can and must empower and lead, government and law cannot and should not be everywhere and do everything.  In the end, many of the most important decisions all of us make including business executives are made in private, alone with our conscience. At those moments, the question must not be just whether what we're about to do is legal but whether it is right.  And there, beyond the boundaries of government and law, we can and should reach for the guidance faith so often provides.

I wish that the business executives who have betrayed our trust had, in their moments of greed, remembered what Moses and Jesus both instructed us, that man does not live by bread alone, but by the words that emanate from the mouth of God.  The Talmud teaches that when we leave this world and arrive at the heavenly court in the hour of judgment, we will be asked four questions, the first of which is, "Did you conduct your business affairs honestly."  And I wish those wayward corporate leaders, in their moment of private decision, had stopped to hear the powerful words from the Gospel of Mark, "for what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul."

But they did not, and their failures are a reminder of the need for all of us to turn to faith and its lessons to guide our behavior.  It is also a reminder of the need for a vital government to defend the public interest when it is threatened.  With that in mind, DLC-PPI has developed its own insightful accountability agenda.  We should pay close attention to their proposal to modernize corporate governance and strengthen the independence and integrity of corporate directors.  As PPI scholar Paul Weinstein writes, "Excessive executive compensation, abuses of stock options, deceptive bookkeeping, sweetheart loans to company directors all are symptoms of an outmoded and unbalanced system of corporate governance developed more than a century ago."

We must also keep pushing aggressively for a concrete plan for growing the innovation economy.  We must get our budget back in the black.  That means we must be prepared to postpone the most expensive and least progressive of the Bush tax cuts that have not yet gone into effect.  But it also means we must be prepared to impose some spending restraint, and to reinstate caps limiting increases to the cost of inflation.

We have to keep knocking down trade barriers and opening new markets.  That's why it's time to pass the trade promotion authority bill in the Senate this week.  We have to keep stepping up our investments in the seedbeds of growth education, scientific research and human capital.  And we have to keep challenging the genius of America's innovators, and help entrepreneurs find the capital to make our economy grow.

That really is what America is all about.  The promise of a better life.  A future as unlimited as our imagination.  A fair chance to make the most of our God-given talents and realize our dreams.  Not predetermined destinies, but equal opportunities.  That is what motivated millions of men and women including my grandparents to make the long journey to Ellis Island just a few miles from here.

And as Hadassah and I travel in Connecticut and throughout the country, we meet people from all walks of life from all over the world who, in this day and time still share those same aspirations.  They come from all countries, faiths, races, and cultures.  But there is a bond that transcends all those differences. . . that binds us together as Americans. . . and that is our shared faith in the American dream.

My fellow New Democrats, we can never forget that their opportunity, and their children's opportunity, is our responsibility. They have entrusted their dreams to us, their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That is why we seek to lead.  That is why we must work together now to restore confidence, to grow the economy, to create jobs and give people the tools they need to succeed.  And that is why, with your help and God's help, I say with confidence and faith that for this greatest country in the world its proud people, the best is yet to come.