Rising to the Challenge

Opportunity. We are the first generation of Americans at risk of handing our children less opportunity, not more.

Today, we are reaping the whirlwind of four decades of economic immobility. Nine out of 10 Americans have not received a decent pay raise over this period, even as costs continue to rise. No matter how hard they work, most Americans cannot afford a middle-class life. Shamefully, 10 million of America’s children live in poverty without any viable means of escape. Meanwhile, the top 0.1 percent (a mere 160,000 households) hold 20 percent of the wealth. That is almost exactly the same amount of wealth held by the “bottom” 90 percent — or nearly 145 million families.

The link between mobility and economic opportunity has broken. Today, there is no better predictor of what a child will earn than what their parents have earned. Take away mobility, and the American Dream becomes meaningless — something between a nostalgic myth and a political lie.

Some say this lack of opportunity is inevitable in the 21st century — the consequence of a worldwide labor market, China’s meteoric rise, technology’s relentless push to automate, and a political system too bought and broken to forge a better course.

The American people refuse to make such a concession, because to do so is to pronounce the American Dream dead for our children. And we are particularly unwilling to throw in the towel knowing that Washington has utterly failed to make things better.

Washington may have given up, but the American people are still fighting for their families.

That is why I am running for president. Like most Americans, I refuse to accept that our economy and our democracy are too broken to fix. For the sake of our children, we must build opportunity for every American and restore integrity to our government. We refuse to accept as permanent the debilitating distance between our high aspirations for the future and Washington’s pathetic performance. We know we can do better.

Our Job as Americans. When I was growing up, it was an American article of faith that if you worked hard, you could get ahead and build a better future. For my mom, Susanne Klejman, together with her parents, John (once Jakób) and Halina, it was more than faith; it was a central fact of their lives. They were Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust. When the Nazis invaded, they were forced to separate. My mom was told her parents were dead, only to discover they were alive when they came to find her after the war. They had lost everything, except each other.

To them, America was a beacon of opportunity — a place to rebuild their shattered lives, to live in peace and freedom, and to provide the next generation more chances than they ever had. When they arrived in New York, my mom was the only one who spoke English. She enrolled herself in public school. My grandparents started a small business to recover some of what they had lost. And because they were able to do that, I grew up with every privilege our country could confer. I also inherited a belief that our job as Americans is to extend opportunity, so that more can rise through hard work and contribute to our experiment in self-government.

Expectations. Americans built our nation on the high expectation that, as a people, we could govern ourselves better than any tyrant. These aspirations to self-government take many forms. They include our elections, three co-equal branches of government, and shared rights and obligations as citizens. They include our commitment to pluralism, democracy, and the rule of law. And they include our most cherished beliefs: that we are created equal, that our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable, and that we have a collective obligation to seek a more perfect Union.

We have never fully realized these aspirations, and more than once we have betrayed them. But over nearly two and a half centuries, even as we had tremendous disagreements, we struggled to make our country more democratic, fair, and free. The point has never been that we would all agree. Living in a free society means living with disagreement and people who disagree with me or with you. The challenge for us today, as it always has been, is to contend with those disagreements, even burnish them, in ways that will create imaginative and durable results to brighten the future for our children and our country.

Today, that bright future is besieged by America’s economic and political sclerosis. I view our current president as a symptom of these conditions, not the primary cause — even though he has made matters far worse. After all, why not rally under a backward-looking banner of “Make America Great Again,” when we have no confidence that our elected leaders and institutions are up to contending with the future? Why not put a reality TV star in charge when things couldn’t get any worse?

This president represents the latest, lowest embodiment of our worst impulses. Beating him is essential. But in this election, we must answer another question: how can we reclaim our exercise in self-government? How will we strive together for a more perfect Union? We have three tasks ahead — all critical, none easy.

Drive Economic Opportunity. Our families and our democracy cannot withstand an economy where growth benefits only the wealthiest Americans. We must build an economy that grows for everybody — by seizing the potential of a transition to clean energy in our fight against climate change; laying a modern foundation of roads, rail, energy, and high-speed broadband; fixing our immigration system to attract and retain the world’s best talent; adopting antitrust and tax policies to encourage new business formation and investment; scaling up basic research to lead the industries of the 21st century, from artificial intelligence to advanced manufacturing; pushing Wall Street to evolve away from its culture of “short termism”; and entering into a new compact with organized labor to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Building an economy that grows for everybody will not happen overnight. In the meantime, we have to help Americans caught in the jaws of flat incomes and rising costs. To lift incomes now, we should expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, pass paid family leave, and raise the minimum wage. To deal with the high cost of raising a child in America, we should pass the American Family Act, which would provide middle class families a real tax cut and reduce child poverty by nearly 40 percent (for far less than the president’s tax cut for the wealthy and 3 percent of the cost of Medicare for All). To deal with skyrocketing health premiums and drug prices, we should create a true public option, Medicare-X, to allow every American to buy quality, affordable insurance while allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time on behalf of the American people.

Finally, we must recommit to providing quality education to every American. Today, we must face the brutal fact that when one group of American children has access to high-quality preschool and the other does not; when one group has access to high-quality K-12 schools and the other does not; when one group enjoys enrichment activities and tutoring and the advice of parents and coaches who themselves went to college and the other does not; when all of this is true, then equal is not equal — and unequal is catastrophic, not only for kids left holding the short end of the stick, but for our shared future.

We need to ensure that all of our children have high-quality early childhood and K-12 education, college students can pursue their studies without debt, more people can pursue alternatives to college, such as high-quality apprenticeships and job training, and more Americans throughout their lives can advance their careers by improving their existing skills or by learning new ones. This may all sound obvious, but we are doing virtually none of it today.

Restore American Values. Our values are enduring strengths. Instead of upholding them, the president has debased them — in the eyes of our citizens, and in the eyes of the world — by slandering the free press, undermining our rule of law, demolishing basic norms of ethics, truth, and decency, and betraying generations-old commitments to our democratic values and allies across the globe.

We must reassert the importance of a free press and respect for an independent judiciary; protect Dreamers and end forever the practice of separating families; reverse the transgender troop ban and the Muslim travel ban; and undo other reckless decisions — large and small — that the Trump Administration has made.

But reversing damage is not enough. Together we have to add and not subtract from our history of extending rights to more Americans. This means offering unflinching protection from discrimination to Americans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. It means reforming our criminal justice system, which has evolved from our long history of unequal treatment of poor and minority criminal offenders into a system of mass incarceration unlike that of any other developed democracy. It means keeping communities safe by building trust between law enforcement and communities of color. It means enacting common-sense steps to reduce gun violence. It also means addressing a quieter, insidious violence that flourishes on social media, feeding adolescent despair. It means facing the inner violence of addiction that hits communities everywhere.

As we renew our values at home, we must re-establish America’s place in the world. That means re-engaging allies in our shared commitment to self-government, our security interests, and fair economic competition. We must lead a coalition of our allies in the Americas, Europe, and Africa to push back on China’s mercantilist trade policies and level the playing field for the world, instead of pursuing self-defeating tariffs that tax our workers and consumers. By more faithfully living out our core values of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law at home, we can inspire those who yearn for them abroad.

Fix our Broken Politics. There are 7,591 words in the Constitution of the United States, but “politics” is not among them. Our politics today have emptied themselves of imagination, integrity, and efficacy.

Corruption and dysfunction in Washington not only destroy the American people’s trust in government but also prevent us from making critical decisions for our future. We can begin to fix our politics by confronting voter suppression in all its forms, banning members of Congress from ever working as lobbyists, and ending partisan gerrymandering. We can also stanch the influx of dark money into politics and fix the rules in Congress that reward partisanship.

These ideas, and many others, reflect a broad consensus among the American people. But, because of our broken politics, we have been unable to pursue any of them.

From Stalemate to Accomplishment. I am not a career politician. I’ve turned around businesses in the private sector. I’ve helped increase achievement for kids as a school superintendent. With my wife, Susan, I’ve raised three daughters. And I’ve spent enough time in Washington to get a lot done — from helping write and pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, to rewriting major parts of No Child Left Behind, making available better treatments for kids with cancer, and expanding opportunities for farmers and ranchers to conserve their lands for the next generation. But, I’ve also been in Washington long enough to understand why a lot of important work doesn’t get done.

Since about 2010, bipartisan ineptitude, laziness, and an absence of vision gave loose rein to a small minority — mainly the Tea Party and, later, the Freedom Caucus, along with their wealthy backers and Fox News — who turned American political processes against themselves. That small minority simultaneously demanded untenable policies and broke down public confidence in our government.

After establishing one-party rule in 2016, that same faction, now led by Donald Trump, set about making a new order that few Americans could imagine and none had asked for: a budget that spends money we do not have and expects our children to repay; a tax cut for the rich that widens economic inequality and robs opportunity from the vast majority of Americans; a foreign policy that drops our proud tradition of encouraging democracy and trade in order to start trade wars with our allies and play patsy to dictators; an approach to the environment that welcomes polluters and banishes the scientific community; and an immigration policy that forces millions to live and work in a permanent, shadowy underclass while turning our border into an international symbol of nativist hostility.

The Freedom Caucus represents a pessimistic, divisive, and gerrymandered view of our nation. If America is to make progress, we must step forward from this form of politics — not just because we disagree with this or that policy — but because it is fundamentally undemocratic and tyrannical. It proceeds from the idea that there is only one way to be an American, one set of beliefs that are American, and that the destruction of our democratic institutions is a worthy price to pay to prevent the American people from governing ourselves.

In the face of this intransigence, we need to create a constituency for change in this country and propose policies that can win broad support from the American people and can overcome our political divisions. To put a finer point on it, there is nothing more urgent, or more ambitious, or more progressive about proposals that stand no chance of passing — because the American people will oppose them.

In my experience, durable progress must be fashioned out of more than obscured truth, slogans, and empty promises. You do it through hard work. By going everywhere. Listening to everyone. Being honest with people. Being ambitious without indulging in magical thinking. And by looking at problems, not through the eyes of our politics today, but through the eyes of our children, and their children after that.

That is how you forge consensus that can endure changing political winds. We should reflect on the fact that, over the past 50 years, we have had divided government for 38. Passing sweeping policy on a party-line vote (or temporarily enacting it through executive order), only to have it repealed in the next election, is not progress. There is no two-year solution to climate change, health care, or higher education.

And if you believe, as I do, that these challenges cry out for action now, not later — that the farmers suffering from historic drought, the families crippled by skyrocketing premiums, and the young people submerged by student debt cannot afford another decade like the last — then we should question proposals whose success hinges on accomplishing what is impossible today in American politics.

Three Paths. Looking ahead, our country has three possible courses of action. We can continue to do nothing and hope our problems will work themselves out on their own. We can treat problem-solving as a winner-take-all game and wait for moments of one-party rule to push through (or reverse) a partisan agenda. Or we can return to the mechanisms created by the founders and revived and reinvigorated by subsequent generations.

Recent history offers ample evidence of the effects of doing nothing. With every year, it seemed we moved closer to a system where politicians created controversy to raise money in order to win elections — all for the privilege of creating controversy to raise money in order to win further elections.

Given this record, it is understandable why many Americans are tempted by the second course — one-party rule. Republicans finally achieved that in the last Congress, and they used that power to reshape the Supreme Court, eviscerate decades of environmental legislation, and pass a tax cut that exacerbated inequality and exploded our national debt. But even if all these policies had been wise, the one-party course would still be wrong. Sound, stable government can’t be a perpetual game of shirts and skins.

The third course requires us to follow a trail first mapped by our founders and do more than replace one version of single-party rule with the version you or I find more acceptable.

Electoral victory is not an end in itself. It is intended to set in motion a pluralist process to resolve our disputes and move the country forward. It is a process the rest of America lives out in every other aspect of our lives. To argue that our national government deserves a waiver is to admit failure in advance.

We have many points of view in our country, and rediscovering our will to reconcile, navigate, and negotiate them is how we correct our course. This is not a call for lazy moderation or lame bipartisan agreements that split the difference between two political parties’ obsolete ideas. It is a call for the difficult, imaginative give-and-take that can produce enduring, forward-looking results.

Some people might say that’s naïve. I think it’s more naïve to suppose we can keep doing what we’re doing and expect anything meaningful to change for our country, and for the kids who will inherit it long after we’re gone.

Finding our way will not be easy in the context of a national government awash in special-interest money and with elected officials who quake at the first sign of a social media storm. But that’s the reality. The Depression wasn’t easy. World War II wasn’t easy. The civil rights movement wasn’t easy. We’ve shown the necessary mettle before.

Our Choice to Make. If we are again at one of history’s turning points, as I believe we are, then we have a choice to make. One road leads to the worst of our past. Demagoguery is not unknown in American history. Anytime Americans have become fearful or worried, there have been those, like our current president, who saw personal advantage in fanning those flames. But their names are not inscribed on the honor roll of history. Sowing division does not require moral authority.

It is precisely at moments of crisis when the confidence of a people is at its lowest ebb. These are the moments we are most likely to abandon our democratic traditions. They are also the moments when confidence in oneself and confidence in one another are needed most. This is especially true in a republic, where only citizens can answer the fire bells at night. If we are to remain a republic, no one alone can fix it.

At times of crisis in our past, Americans have rallied confidently and taken a higher road. The list of them is long and honorable — it includes those who sought the vote, those who expected safety from the vigilante justice of lynch mobs and the freedom of rule by law, those who knew they should share the same working conditions granted as rights to others, those who were the first to graduate from high school and college, those who sought the right to marry the person they love, those who strove to see the lives of their children exceed the expectations and opportunities they themselves were afforded by their parents and grandparents.

As in their time, much is at stake in ours. What we must decide in this election — now having seen what is down the easy path of our worst instincts and pessimism in our country and each other — is whether that is the road we will continue to choose. Or, inspired by the examples of Americans who did the hardest work, we approach our difficulties with vigor and our future with optimism.

If you need further inspiration to live up to this challenge, I’d ask you to consider the millions of America’s children heading home after a long day at school, shifting their backpacks of books to find a more comfortable position, sharpening pencils for math and pastels for art, clearing a space on a crowded dinner table for homework. Think about the child living in poverty helping her younger brother with a math problem after school, both expecting that, in America, they will have more opportunity than their parents. That is the hard job we are asking them to do.

It is not their task to govern. We cannot yet ask them to settle our fiscal affairs, to undo the warping effects of our campaign finance system, to craft a 21st century immigration policy, to secure America’s place in the world, or to protect the planet they will inherit. Their table is already filled with books and homework. They need us to do our share of the work, so that when they are of an age to play their part in our democracy, they are not solving the problems we shamefully left behind for them.

They are counting on us, not just our elected officials, but all of us, as citizens, to participate in the great project of self-government that generations of Americans have handed us. They are right to do so.

Michael Bennet

Denver, Colorado



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