Bill Clinton is rightly known as a tremendous orator. He speaks to a crowd of hundreds as if he were just chatting over a cup of coffee, and exudes a charisma of a sort that few others have. Last year’s speaker, Barack Obama, has a different sort of charisma
He began by saying that in the many political events he’s addressed over the last year, he regularly pointed to Kansas as an example of how Democrats could win in Republican areas. The trick in Kansas as it has been elsewhere is “to find a common ground and common solutions.”
“You did a great thing here, for the Democrats, but you did a better thing for the people of Kansas and the public interest” in bringing in high profile party-switchers and broadening the debate. His assessment is that Democrats won a chance from the American people, and now is the time to demonstrate that we deserved it.
By his lights, Kansas is a perfect place to find new directions in solving our national problems. By “putting ideology over evidence” on issues from political edits of scientific reports to the war in Iraq, Republicans left room for Democrats to broaden their message, to “become, in effect, both the progressive and the traditional conservative party in America.” The questions he posed to the Kansas Democrats were “How do we wish to be conservative,… how do we wish to be progressive?”
The bulk of his speech was focused on how the states — Kansas in particular — could be the laboratory for new ideas, especially in healthcare and the environment, including problems of overfishing, peak oil and climate change. These issues are challenges, but also great opportunities. They are opportunities because we cannot continue to grow the economy without creating new industries, and addressing these problems will require new industries.
Global warming and climate change are a challenge, but also “the biggest economic opportunity we ever had.” Building wind farms was one solution he talked about, pointing out that doubling the production of wind power cuts the price per watt by 30%, and that there are already some wind power contracts which are cheaper than contracts from coal plants. Wind power is not just a way to cut our dependency on foreign oil, and not just environmentally sound, it also presents a great economic opportunity for areas without an existing industrial base.
Similarly, while the focus on compact fluorescent lightbulbs tends to emphasize the electrical savings and the longer lifetimes, he pointed out that “Walmart is trying to sell 100 million [CFLs] this year,” and that “they ought to be made in America.” Solving these problems will require the “kind of practical stuff made for people like you.” And while that comment was aimed at Kansas and Kansas Democrats, the message holds for our nation as a whole.
The Clinton Presidency was built around small, practical solutions that opened opportunities — policies ranging from expanded rural broadband to support for new manufacturing. That is the sort of leadership we’ve missed these last 6 years, a time in which “the elevation of ideology over evidence has kept our head in the sand.”
The other area in which our head has been stuck in the sand is healthcare. He pointed out the disparities between the amount we spend on healthcare in America with what we get for the money, and asked “What happened to the money?,” the $800 billion per year that we spend beyond any what any other industrialized nation would if it were as large. We have fewer people covered and shorter life expectancies. The money goes to administrative costs for insurers, a situation he described as “letting the financing tail wag the healthcare dog.” The insurers have hired more people while covering fewer people, hiring people to figure out how not to pay claims.
On this point, he suggested fewer solutions, perhaps because the issue is so politically fraught. “We cannot make intelligent decisions about how to reform healthcare unless we are both liberal — if you will — in wanting to provide health insurance to everybody that doesn’t have it, and conservative in wanting to get our aggregate spending more in line with our competitors. Ironically, we can’t do one without the other.” The states, especially smaller ones like Kansas, present opportunities to experiment with new ideas. “This is what they hired us to do in the last election.” The solution will be found in the details of what we are paying for — shifting to self-insured malpractice pools, controlling obesity and diabetes, and finding ways to make insurance more widely available, especially to children.
He concluded by answering a question that he gets asked a lot: “How long will it take us to recover our lost position in the world?”
“Three or four days. … This is a country of constant becoming, and you’re in a party that’s in the solution’s business.” And Kansas has already shown some of those answers to the nation.
Additional photos at my Fotki site.