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U.S. Rep. Jim Leach's DNC Speech

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Speech at Democratic convention by former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa

As a Republican, I stand before you with deep respect for the history and traditions of my political party. But it is clear to all Americans that something is out of kilter in our great republic. In less than a decade America’s political and economic standing in the world has been diminished. Our nation’s extraordinary leadership in so many areas is simply not reflected in the partisan bickering and ideological politics of Washington. Seldom has the case for an inspiring new political ethic been more compelling. And seldom has an emerging leader so matched the needs of the moment.

The platform of this transformative figure is a call for change. The change Barack Obama is advocating is far more than a break with today’s politics. It is a clarion call for renewal rooted in time-tested American values that tap Republican, as well as Democratic traditions.

Perspective is difficult to bring to events of the day, but in sweeping terms, there have been four great debates in our history to which both parties have contributed. The first debate, led by Thomas Jefferson, the first Democrat to be elected president, centered on the question of whether a country could be established, based on The Rights of Man.

The second debate, led by Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to be elected president, was about definitions—whether The Rights of Man applied to individuals who were neither pale nor male. It took almost two centuries of struggle, hallmarked by a civil war, the suffrage and abolitionist movements, the Harlem renaissance and a courageous civil rights leadership to bring meaning to the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence.

The third debate, symbolized by the new deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the emphasis on individual initiative of Ronald Reagan, involves the question of opportunity, whether rights are fully meaningful if all citizens are not given a chance to succeed and provide for their families.

The fourth debate, which acquired grim relevance with the dawn of the nuclear age, is the question of whether any rights are possible without peace and environmental security.

The American progressive tradition reflected in these debates spans Democratic standard bearers from the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan to the Camelot statesman, John F. Kennedy. It includes Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, who built up the National Parks system and broke down corporate monopolies, and Dwight David Eisenhower, who ran on a pledge to end a war in Korea, brought a stop to European colonial intervention in the Middle East, quietly integrated the Washington, D.C., school system and not so quietly sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to squash segregation in public schools throughout the country.

In models of international statecraft, progressive leadership includes Al Gore, who helped galvanize worldwide understanding of the most challenging environmental threat currently facing the planet, and our current president’s father, who led an internationally sanctioned coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

In Congress, Democratic senators like Pat Moynihan and Mike Mansfield served in Republican administrations. On the Republican side, Arthur Vandenberg helped President Truman launch the Marshall Plan, and Everett Dirksen backed Lyndon Johnson’s landmark civil rights legislation.

In troubled times, it was understood that country comes before party, that in perilous moments mutual concern for the national interest must be the only factor in political judgments. This does not mean that debate within and between the political parties should not be vibrant. Yet what frustrates so many citizens is the lack of bipartisanship in Washington and the way today’s Republican Party has broken with its conservative heritage.

The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming. And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts.

America has seldom faced more critical choices: whether we should maintain an occupational force for decades in a country and region that resents western intervention or elect a leader who, in a carefully structured way, will bring our troops home from Iraq as the heroes they are. Whether it is wise to continue to project power largely alone with flickering support around the world or elect a leader who will follow the model of General Eisenhower and this president’s father and lead in concert with allies.

Whether it is prudent to borrow from future generations to pay for today’s reckless fiscal policies or elect a leader who will shore up our budgets and return to a strong dollar. Whether it is preferable to continue the policies that have weakened our position in the world, deepened our debt and widened social divisions or elect a leader who will emulate John F. Kennedy and relight a lamp of fairness at home and reassert an energizing mix of realism and idealism abroad.

The portfolio of challenges passed on to the next president will be as daunting as any since the Great Depression and World War II. This is not a time for politics as usual or for run-of-the-mill politicians. Little is riskier to the national interest than more of the same. America needs new ideas, new energy and a new generation of leadership.

Hence, I stand before you proud of my party’s contributions to American history but, as a citizen, proud as well of the good judgment of good people in this good party, in nominating a transcending candidate, an individual whom I am convinced will recapture the American dream and be a truly great president: the senator from Abraham Lincoln’s state—Barack Obama. Thank you.

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