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Remarks by Senator John Kerry at the Commonwealth Club

Location: San Francisco, CA

Thank you for the invitation to be here today.  It was in this hotel that Tony Bennett first sang "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" and I certainly know how he feels.  As a young Lieutenant in the Navy, I had the hardship duty of training on Treasure Island.  Actually, it was hard work, but there were definitely worse places to have to do it.
I also had the pleasure of exploring the Filmore West of that era.  I'd like to say this was a part of San Francisco's history, but I think most who were there don't remember it well enough to record it.

What is historic is the Commonwealth Club and it is a true honor to be here as you celebrate your 100th birthday year.  You have not only been an important forum for public discussion and debate, but a pioneering force for progress.  The Commonwealth Club published a study on child labor in 1906 and a study on air pollution in 1912.  I guess traffic on the 80 must have been bad even then. 

In fact, on the way over here I think I passed some people in a Model T who have been stuck in that traffic since 1912.
On some issues - like child labor - we have achieved fundamental reform since the beginnings of this Club.  On others - like air pollution - we have far more to do.  The times are new and the problems are both the same and different.  But there is a constant that is at the heart of this country's journey - and this Club's commitment: the cause of progress and the urgency of change.  You should be proud that this enterprise has so often been in the forefront and even ahead of events.  You have not only participated in the debate, but led it again and again.

And I'd like to think that you, the members of the Commonwealth Club, and I, a Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, share a special bond.  But by virtue of our nation's history and our hopes, the ideal of commonwealth is the shining thread woven through the fabric of American life.  From the Constitution's framework of federalism to the progressive income tax to the principles behind Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicare, the concept that we owe things to one another - that we fail or succeed together - is the soul of the American story.  Martin Luther King said that we are tied each to the other in "a single garment of destiny."  Standing before the Commonwealth Club as he campaigned for President seventy years ago, Franklin Roosevelt put it most simply when he said: "We must all shoulder our common load."

It is this ideal of commonwealth that I address today.  For few things in our national life are more fundamental than the fact that these United States are tied together into a single nation and that what happens in one state affects every other state.  Especially when it is a state as large and populous and influential as California.

It is said that govern is to choose - and those choices have consequences.  They can make a country weaker or stronger, more vulnerable or more secure, imperiled or safer.  The choices government makes matter.

And I believe that over the past two years, the federal government has been making the wrong choices; that it has been taking us backward and in the wrong direction; that it has not been living up to the call of a commonwealth where benefits and burdens are shared by all.

Nothing more plainly reveals the effect of wrong choices across our national commonwealth than the impact of the recent federal tax cuts on California's economy and budget. 

California is one-sixth of the American economy and the fifth largest economy on earth.  What happens in this state has ripple effects, good and bad, felt far beyond your borders.  And there can be no doubt that today this state, where America's future begins, is wrestling with its own future.

In the past two years California has lost more than 82,000 jobs; unemployment statewide is up by 36 percent; and in 2001, median family income actually dropped by $5,000.  And the Bay Area has borne a disproportionate share of the burden.  Unemployment here has more than doubled.

With incomes falling, California now confronts a record budget shortfall, with federal actions buffeting the state from multiple sides.  The tax cut of 2001 was not only fiscally irresponsible, but fundamentally unfair to Californians.  And in the Administration's new tax cut proposal, the top 1 percent of income earners here would receive a $36,000 tax break while the middle 20 percent got $305 - 100 times less.  And taxes for another 7 million Californians would be cut by less than $100 a year.  These days that barely pays for a week's worth of gas.

For those 7 million - mostly middle class - Californians, the cost of that $100 is high.  For while the federal government can go into deficit, even at the cost of long term economic growth, states like California are constitutionally barred from running even short-term deficits.  When revenue disappears, their only recourse is higher taxes or lesser services. 

The Bush Administration has denied assistance to the states and underfunded federal mandates in order to lavish massive benefits on the few, with minimum tax relief for the many.  And now the result of budget busting federal tax cuts for Californians will include higher college tuition bills, longer waits in traffic, less access to health care, larger class sizes and fewer high-quality teachers for their children. 

In the end, unfair and unaffordable tax cuts from Washington will mean higher taxes on middle class families in California.  Not only here but everywhere, Republican and Democratic Governors alike are being forced to raise taxes just to keep their doors open and basic services going.  So there is a direct link between the federal tax cut of 2001 and state tax increases in 2003.  And when the federal government's mistakes force states to raise their taxes, it not only robs Peter to pay Paul, but hurts hard-working families and undermines our economy's strength. 

Across the country, states must now close budget deficits totaling over $100 billion.  But at least a quarter of the gap is right here in California.  Make no mistake, this state is not alone in facing a fiscal crisis.  But it should not be left to deal with it alone.  It's a long way from Franklin Roosevelt's idea of shouldering the common load to George W. Bush's policy of California out in the cold.  What we need today is a genuine commitment to a new national commonwealth, with the federal government on the side of the Golden State, instead of on the sidelines of a crisis for which Washington itself bears so much of the responsibility.

We cannot leave states like California without help or hope - with no choice except massive tax increases or drastic cuts in services essential to both quality of life and standard of living.  If the federal government can find billions of dollars for Turkey, why can't it provide vital aid for schools, health care, and law enforcement in California?

A number of us in the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, have called on the President to reverse his refusal of fiscal relief for the states - relief which is not only right in terms of the ideal of commonwealth, but equitable in the face of the reality that today the states are being forced to pick up the pieces of broken federal promises.  Whether it is special education, the No Child Left Behind Act, or homeland security, the federal government has imposed programs and rules on the states without providing the resources.

Homeland security is perhaps the clearest example of how the Administration's attitude toward the states violates the values of the commonwealth.  The planes that hit the World Trade Center or the Pentagon a year and a half ago weren't just attacking New York or Virginia.  They were attacking the United States of America. 

If, god forbid, terrorists were to strike California, it would be more than an assault on San Francisco or Contra Costa County, Los Angeles or San Diego.  It would be another act of infamy against all of America and all American citizens.
Yet when it comes to defending the homeland, the federal government has given many pledges, and then simply walked away.

California was promised $400 million in the aftermath of September 11th.  Last Friday, the check finally came.  For $45 million - a little over ten percent at a time when the state has to spend $500 million a year on homeland defense.
Let me say this very plainly:  if there is another Al Qaeda attack on this nation, the phone won't ring first on Tom Ridge's desk at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC.  It will be a local 911 operator who answers the call and local police and firefighters who put their lives on the line.  Those brave men and women are on the frontlines of this new and fateful war against terrorism.  They were the first up the stairs in the World Trade Center.  They deserve to be in the front ranks of our budget priorities.

It is also time for the federal government to forge a partnership with California to intensify research and development of technologies that can detect, prevent, contain, and counter biological and chemical threats. Today there is too little incentive for private investors to enter a tiny market where government may be the primary customer. So why not invest federal seed money in a privately managed venture capital fund to develop anti-bioterrorism techniques, and encourage new companies to enter the field?

Health care is another area where federal choices are inflicting very real damages on state and local government and millions of Californians.  Health insurance premiums jumped 13 percent in California last year.  And a recent study found that California families pay thirty percent more today in health care costs than they did in 2001.  With people unable to afford health coverage or losing their jobs, they are turning to Medicaid and Healthy Families and other parts of our health safety net. 

States need a partnership with the federal government to deal with the fiscal impacts of what has become an acute health care crisis.  Instead, the Administration proposes to cut the safety net, offering California 85 percent less than what is needed - and with the caveat that the state accept a lump sum block grant for the Medicaid program.  That means that if health care costs rise - which they will, or the number of people in need soars - which it continues to do, California would have no choice but to turn people away.

There is one other, even greater challenge to the security and strength of our national commonwealth - a clear and present danger that California understands far better than the present Administration in Washington.  Our economy and our society cannot permanently be held hostage to foreign oil in the hands of potentially hostile powers.  It is time - it is long past time - for a declaration of energy independence. We can't drill your way to energy independence; we need to invest our way there.  And this country and this state have the spirit and enterprise to achieve that great national goal - if a President summons us to it.

In the Senate, I joined with John McCain in the fight to take a critical first step -- to raise the fuel efficiency of our cars -- and the special interests spent millions of dollars in ads and lobbying to win round one. But you won round two in Sacramento only to have the Bush Administration sue to stop you. It appears that this Administration believes in state's rights - except when it comes to a state's right to breathe clean air. 

We're going to show them, it's not a choice between jobs or the environment; the environment is jobs. Once solar power, fuel cells and hybrids were the stuff of science fiction.  Today, they are within our reach.  But we need a national commitment to get there - and a national leadership determined to lead us there.

In fact, California already generates 13% of its power from renewables.  You're leading the way. And if we enlist Silicon Valley and all of California in a new Manhattan Project, this time to win energy independence, then we as Americans will lead the world in developing and manufacturing new clean energy sources and technologies.  Today, $1.8 billion in federal largesse is lavished on oil and gas R and D while alternative energies compete for the scraps of a mere $24 million in federal venture capital.  I believe that is profoundly wrong.  We need to turn it around and redirect much of that money right here -- to accelerate exploration of technology, speed up the development breakthroughs, and generate thousands of high paying new jobs.  It is time for America to lead the world in the energy revolution, not lag behind Germany or Japan.

Energy independence is critical to the long-term national security of the United States.  No foreign government can embargo clean, domestic, renewable sources of energy.  No terrorist can seize control of them.  No cartel can play games with them.  If America could go to the moon, then young Americans in decades to come should not have to be sent into battle for the energy to keep our economy alive.

Californians see the economic costs of energy dependence everyday as you pay more than two dollars at the pump for gallons of gas. And with gas prices soaring and traffic snarled, a safer, more modern and energy-efficient infrastructure is also more imperative than ever.  Here, too, the federal government should be leading the way instead of walking away.  You know, one of the things I learned in the military is that you live and die by your preventive maintenance and investment in your equipment.  The same is true for bridges, rail, highways, buildings, and water and sewer systems.  Ask Willie Brown - ask any mayor in a city in America - and they will tell you that we are long overdue in this country for a far-reaching renewal of our infrastructure - especially transportation.

I believe it's past time we used our ingenuity - our incredible creativity - to strengthen our transportation system by embarking on an extensive commitment to build high-speed rail and other alternatives.  That's how you create jobs, move products, and make our cities work.  And that's how you help people spend time with their families instead of in traffic jams.

In sum, the ideal and the reality of a national commonwealth will mean that we don't leave states in the lurch and that we look to them for leadership.  And no state has provided leadership longer than California.  When Washington has been stuck in the rut of old ideas and outdated orthodoxies, California has been forged ahead.  You have not just served as a laboratory of democracy; you have turned theory into progress.  And in so many ways, you have shown the way to what America can and should become.

In the past four years alone, California passed the strongest Patient's Bill of Rights in the nation and the first comprehensive program to clean-up coastal pollution.  You are the first state to create paid family leave, to fully authorize stem cell research, to enact a Violence Against Women Act, to pass an environmental justice law, and to comprehensively address global warming.  While Washington has been going in the wrong direction and backward, you've been moving in the right direction and forward.  And the difficulties of this moment should not obscure the progress of a decade.

A sense of aspiration, of restless yearning, is in California's soul.  It is as new as the latest scientific breakthrough in your labs - and as old as that summer day in 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and a banner was carried through the streets of San Francisco that read: "California Annexes the United States."  Sometimes, I think that might not be such a bad idea.  In any case, California today is the engine of the American economy and lays the tracks for America's future.  And this state - and all states - need new leadership in Washington that will create a new commonwealth for this nation which recognizes what we owe another, what we gain from working together, what we lose when we are divided. 
Together, in a new time, we can make our nation safer, stronger and more secure. 

We must mark out the path and it will not be the easy or well-worn road.  It will be an adventurous journey; at times, even a courageous endeavor.

And here in this state, I think of someone who once described the spirit in can move us ahead.  Walt Whitman wrote of:
"Facing west from California's shores,
 Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound…"

That is the obligation and privilege of this generation in this young century - to seek and find the new America.

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