Gov. Mario M. Cuomo — The National Press Club

Governor Mario M. Cuomo

The National Press Club

Washington, D.C.

January 7, 2003

For the last two years our politics have been dominated by the traumatizing effects of 9/11 and the confrontation with Iraq which the President dramatically linked to the war on terrorism.

Last year the tension increased when the President declared that Iraq, North Korea and Iran were the world’s “Axis of Evil” then warned that the United States might make a preemptive attack against anyone we regarded as dangerous . . . but only in the name of peace.

Now we are on the brink of a war with Iraq and both North Korea and Iran have reacted by re-invigorating their own nuclear capacities, also in the  name of peace.

Meanwhile, terrorism is escalating world-wide as anti-American sentiment reaches dangerous levels of hostility in the Arab lands  and beyond.

After 9/11 the nation rallied around the President in a powerful show of support that expressed our anxiety and our eagerness to strengthen the President’s hand in the war against terrorism.

At home however, the preoccupation with terrorism and Iraq allowed our domestic condition to wither.

Today the economy is weak, not because we lack investment capital but because businesses are simply not doing enough business. 

More than 70% of our economy depends upon our many millions of consumers but their resources continue to be depleted by unemployment and overloaded credit cards.

In two years the Federal government has gone from the largest budget surpluses in our history to hundreds of billions of dollars of annual deficit.       

At the same time states, cities and counties are anticipating their worst financial crises since the Great Depression, with as much as $100 billion dollars of their own deficits next year.  That will mean local tax increases; another solid punch to the already heavily pounded stomach of our sagging economy.

The increase in oil prices and the uncertainty created by imminent war also chill economic activity.

Our government has virtually ignored a number of other serious weaknesses that are further stifling our nation’s productive capacity, and dangerously fragmenting our population.

  • More than eight million Americans have lost their jobs: three-quarters of a million don’t have unemployment benefits.
  • Only one-in-five of our two hundred million workers are high-skilled. The other approximately 160 million workers hobbled by inadequate education, earn only modest wages. 

Their living conditions are worsening because the costs of everything they need most ― housing, healthcare, education ― are growing much faster than their wages.  

  • This has widened what is already the widest wealth gap in the industrial world. The thin band of super rich Americans grows richer, the large middle-class slips and struggles not to slide backward, and beneath them thirty-three million other Americans languish in poverty, although many of them are working full time.
  • More than eleven million of the poor are children-at-risk of inadequate education, joblessness, homelessness and abuse of all kinds. Some of these children grow up familiar with the sound of gunfire before they’ve ever heard an orchestra play.
  • More than forty-one million Americans – 6 million more than a decade ago – are not poor enough for Medicaid, old enough for Medicare or fortunate enough to have a health insurance plan, with health care costs soaring further out of reach. This means that workers suffering serious illness — like women struck by breast cancer, or men with prostate cancer ― will receive treatment but will probably be bankrupted, impairing further their productivity ― and the rest of their life.
  • We have also failed to deal in any meaningful way with the need to protect our Social Security and Medicare funds.
  • Our absurd dependence on foreign oil — condemned by Presidents from Jimmy Carter on — continues without so much as a decent attempt at conservation. And the environment around us deteriorates as the Bush administration denies the threats of global warming, contaminated waters and vanishing wildernesses. 


With all these problems why didn’t the Democrats do better last November?

Probably because we virtually ceded to the Republicans the issues of terrorism and Iraq, and did not make a vigorous enough case on the domestic issues, especially the economy and the President’s tax cut plan.

We Democrats will have to do better on both counts to restore ourselves to power in 2004.

And I think we can, if we communicate more clearly the concerns and needs of most Americans.

I believe if a solid majority of the American people were as informed about all that is going on in Washington as the people in this room today, and had a chance to speak directly to our leaders, they would say something like this:

“Let’s not waste time on the simplistic arguments about ‘Big Government’ or ‘Little Government’: we agree with Abraham Lincoln, ‘We should have only the government we need but all the government we need.’” 

“And let’s not rely on shorthand labels like “right wing conservative,” and “left wing liberal,” which distort complex positions on complicated subjects.  Instead, let’s be more specific about the issues in question and clearer about your particular positions.  And let’s start by discussing Saddam Hussein, terrorism, war, the economy, tax cuts, healthcare and the other things we talk about at home.”

“The country is with you, Mr. President in your commitment to de-fang Saddam Hussein and to defeat Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and all terrorist groups. 

“But war in Iraq would kill a lot of people, many of them American.  It could destroy much of Iraq’s infrastructure,  make the task of democratizing the country more difficult and further destabilize the region. 

It would surely provoke more anti-American terrorism as the radical Islamists note the difference between the way we deal with Muslim Iraq and non-Muslim North Korea, notwithstanding North Korea poses a much greater potential nuclear threat.”

It wouldn’t be a war that ends violence: it would be a war that invites violence, especially against our country.

“The best victory, Mr. President… for you and our nation… would not be in winning a destructive war over a weaker opponent, but in getting rid of Saddam Hussein without a war – through intelligence, wisdom and political adroitness. 

We know you’re aware of this, Mr. President:  Secretary Rumsfeld has suggested a number of times the possibility of a regime change by working out some kind of exile situation with the cooperation of some of our Arab friends.

However you do it, if you could get rid of Saddam and the threat he poses without all the death, destruction and new hostility a war would create – it would be a real triumph of powerful and enlightened leadership.  It would instantly relieve the anti-American tension and hostility around the world… and even provide a quick leap forward in the stock market.

It would give you a glorious legacy and make you one of the most popular Presidents in our modern history. 

One other thing Mr. President, we know that the war against terrorism will never end in a pact or parade: it will be more like the war against crime . . . fought every day.”   

“Saddam and the other terrorists are malignant, lethal tumors that must be removed.  But even if war is necessary to remove them, we must also try to root out the cancer that produced them because if we don’t, that cancer will produce more-and-more of them.  That’s what’s happening now in Israel and elsewhere.

What do we do about that, Mr. President?”

The President knows this question requires an answer but he has so far not given a strong one.  He has conceded that ignorance, oppression, poverty and lack of opportunity are causes that breed alienation and hostility, whether it’s a ghetto in the United States, or an Arab village in the Middle-East where these conditions can make people susceptible to terrorist networks. 

And he has noted that much of the Muslim hostility is fueled by radical Islamists who distort the Q’uran into an instruction that Western infidels must be destroyed and that suicidal terrorism is glorious. 

But so far the President has not done anything meaningful to correct the situation. 

Democrats should suggest that he try to enlist those who call themselves our friends in the Arab World — especially the wealthy Saudis — to stop financing madrasahs that teach the distortive and provocative interpretations of Islam which incite violence instead of promoting peace. 

And, as Colin Powell has suggested, the President should ask them to work with the United States and our other allies, supporting generously the economies of currently depressed Arab countries.

Democrats should also point out that the President was wrong last June to effectively withdraw from active participation in the negotiations to end the incessant killing going on in Israel.  We should urge the President to return as soon as possible to an all out effort to help the parties arrive at some kind of temporary cease fire, at least. 

Here too we should urge our Western allies and Arab friends to join in helping to provide the infrastructure and other wherewithal needed to create a successful economy in the new Palestinian state the President has promised.  They should start building the roads, energy and water systems, factories and residences that the Palestinians will need to make the desert bloom the way that Israelis have done.  Give Palestinians a motive to work toward peace: a Palestinian state without a viable economy is certainly no real inducement.

Peace and mutual security are vital to the Middle East, to us and to the rest of the world.  At the very least, tangible progress toward a separate state acceptable to the Palestinians would reduce Muslim hostility and terrorism.

On the domestic side, I think those clear-headed, common sense Americans would say to our political leaders something like the following:       

“At the same time that we are trying to make the world a better place, we cannot let our domestic condition continue to wither”. 

“All you politicians agreed to devote more resources to education.  You promised to ‘leave no child behind’ — then you didn’t leave enough money behind to improve their public schools and to help them get a college education.”

“And you promised to help people who desperately need health insurance and prescription drugs.  But then you said the nation can’t afford it.  Nor — according to you, can we afford to shore up Medicare and Social Security” 

“How do you justify that?”

“Your tax cut plan in 2001 gave up more than one-and-a-quarter trillion dollars of the nation’s capital.  Almost $500 billion of the total tax cut will go out over the next five years to a little more than one percent of all taxpayers — only about 1 million 250 thousand of the richest people in America get nearly $500 billion!”

“The plan was passed at a time when we were enjoying the largest Federal budget surpluses ever produced, left behind by the Clinton/Gore administration.  We were told by you Mr. President:  ‘We just don’t need the money, so let’s give it back.’”

“You were wrong Mr. President!  We need the money desperately.”

“Already this huge surrender of capital has helped devastate the Federal budget, replacing surpluses with deficits…“as far as the eye can see.” 

But you say $200 billion dollars to fight a war in Iraq is no problem.

“And today you’re telling us that you want to give more hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to those Americans who need them least.”

“Mr. President your proposal to remove taxes on dividends is just another way to help the already richest Americans.  It will do nothing to stimulate the economy:  what the economy needs is more people buying goods and services… more consumers.

“So, let’s do what common sense tells us to do.”  Let’s try harder to stimulate business, make our workers more productive, and avoid punishing tax increases all at the same time.”

“Hold off on still more tax cuts.”

“Defer the nearly $500 billion dollars in give-away tax cuts to the richest people in the country for a few years or so.  Tell them you are postponing the remaining portion of your 1.345 trillion dollar mega tax cut until you get the government’s business back to the annual surpluses you counted on when you decided on the cuts in the first place.”

“In the meantime, give different more economically productive tax cuts and help avoid dangerous tax increases at the state and local level.” 

“Remember, it’s not a lack of investors that’s hurting the economy — there’s plenty of investment money around — the problem is businesses’ failure to make profits — we need to get people to buy goods and services.”

“So instead of giving nearly $500 billion to the already richest 1.2 million Americans, give tax cuts to the hard-working millions of workers who are struggling because they can’t afford to buy all they need. 

Millionaires don’t need more spending money:  these workers do, and they will spend it buying goods and services and helping businesses.”

“These cuts would be stimulative to the economy besides being fairer to the Americans who need fairness the most.” 

“Mr. President, you accuse the people who disagree with your tax plan of class warfare.  Respectfully, Mr. President, it is class warfare, but you declared the war!  You created the 2001 plan and this new proposal that would give more than a trillion dollars to the already rich while leaving the vast majority of Americans struggling, without the education, healthcare, retirement benefits and environmental help we all agree they need.  They are just trying to defend themselves!

“Also you should give part of the nearly $500 billion to states and local governments as short-term revenue sharing for use in avoiding hurtful tax increases that would otherwise be imposed upon our economy. 

“And use the rest of the nearly $500 billion to keep your promises to aid education, health care, the environment, social security and Medicare.”

Finally, Democrats should talk to America about the basic principles that often get lost in the blizzard of numbers, shibboleths, arguments and political deceptions.

Democrats should remind America how we made ourselves a great nation.

America was born in outrageous ambition.

The deprived and the oppressed from all over the globe came here with little more than the desire to realize themselves.  In a little over two hundred years they built us into the most powerful nation on earth, a nation that has multiplied success generation-after-generation.

They did it by insisting on a market system and personal responsibility that make up the rock solid foundation on which our society was first built and has flourished.

But they also realized that we could not achieve greatness as a dog-eat-dog society of millions of disassociated individuals.  They recognized the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of us — as a nation and beyond.  So they supplemented the market system by having government contribute to the people’s education, healthcare and retirement security in order to enhance the productivity of American workers.

They made America great by coming together, sharing benefits and burdens, for the good of the whole nation

That’s not some glib slogan invented as the latest political conceit.

It’s history and it’s plain common sense, here and around the world:  as we invest in one another’s ability to be productive we increase the community’s wealth and we reduce its costly disorientations. 

And we also promote peace.

God forbid we should allow history to record that the best thing this generation did as a nation was to destroy enemies and win wars, instead of helping people help themselves earn a good life.

We know we can frighten people with our awesome military might: what we need to be sure of is that they will respect us for our wisdom and fairness as well.

The greatest human temptation is said to be the willingness to settle for too little.  It would be a particularly grievous sin for this great nation to give in to that seduction.  The good fate that endowed us above all nations, charges us with a greater mission.  We are the richest, freest, most technologically proficient and most powerful nation in world history.  There is no reason, other than our own unwillingness, that we cannot also be the best educated, most highly skilled, healthiest, fairest nation in the world ― and the most effective instrument for spreading prosperity and peace to the rest of the planet. 

We can be closer to what we ought to be, if we remember that we are all in this adventure together;  in our great nation and in this world.

I think most Americans would agree.

Thank you.

And Happy New Year!