Statements and Speeches

NEWARK – On Friday, Sept. 14, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) delivered the 2nd Annual James R. Soles Lecture on the Constitution and Citizenship at the University of Delaware on Friday. Below is an excerpt of his address:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Please be seated.

Jim Soles knew a thing or two about forming a more perfect Union. He married Ada Leigh Soles after a courtship that began while they were students at Florida State University. And, if truth be known, I’m not sure that courtship ever really ended, and I suspect that it endures until this day. Jim once told me she was not only the loveliest woman he had ever met, she was the kindest and most caring, the brightest and the most fun to be with. She was dating a fellow who was in the Navy at the time. He was tall and handsome and destined for success in whatever endeavors he pursued. He was no match, though, for Jim Soles in the pursuit of Ada Leigh. She was president of her sorority at Florida State. Jim told friends for years how he courted the whole sorority in pursuit of Ada Leigh. Over time, he proposed to her over and over again. Finally, she said yes, and they were wed.

That marriage would last for 50 years until Ada Leigh’s death in 2010, just six months prior to his own passing. Jim’s love for her was as strong on the day that he died as it was on the day they married. In fact, he shared with all of us gathered at her funeral that he told her every day for years until her death how much he loved her and that he always would.

As some of you know, I like to ask couples who have been married a long time – 50, 60, 70 years and more – what is the secret to the strength of their union. The answers are sometimes hilarious. Sometimes poignant. And, sometimes incredibly insightful.

The best answer that I’ve ever received to that oft-asked question, however, was “the two ‘C’s’ – communicate and compromise.” I’ve thought about that answer many times over the years. Communicate and compromise. Along the way, I’ve concluded that not only are they the secret to an enduring marriage, they are also the secret to an enduring and vibrant democracy.

As we gather here this day, I want to say to all of you right from the outset that Jim Soles understood that while the words to the Constitution may have been Divinely inspired, in the end, they were only words on a piece of paper unless they were embraced by a citizenry in this country that was informed, involved, inclusive, and intent on perfecting this Union we call the United States of America, in part by ensuring that we never stop communicating with one another and finding compromises to resolve our differences that allow us to move forward as a nation.

I’ll return to that theme a few minutes later, but first let me digress just a bit. I took a walk down Memory Lane this past weekend. That walk took me first to the Morris Library where I had met a wonderful young woman named Cindy Skibicki during a study break in the spring of 1974. She was a junior majoring in political science at the time. When she learned of my interest in current events and politics, she told me that one of her political science professors – a fellow named Jim Soles – was thinking about running for the congressional seat held then by Republican Pete DuPont. She urged me to help out in the campaign. I looked into her blue eyes and said, “Sign me up.”

My walk last weekend also took me to Mitchell Hall where Cindy and I went to see a show a few weeks later. There, during intermission, she introduced me to the woman sitting right behind us. That lady turned out to be Ada Leigh Soles. My walk last weekend took me into Smith Hall, too, and right up to the door of what had been Jim’s office for many years, a door that countless students walked through looking for a good listener, a good counselor, and a caring person who could help keep them on track or get back on the right track in their lives. And, finally, that walk took me back to the house at 215 Vassar Drive here in Newark where Jim and Ada Leigh lived and raised their young daughters Nancy Beth and Catherine. A house whose garage had been emptied out 38 years ago and converted into an interim campaign headquarters.

It was there that I – a former naval flight officer and Vietnam veteran – reported for duty as a volunteer, joining students like me, and some much younger, stuffing and addressing envelopes to people we hoped would send money to a longshot campaign.

As the campaign gathered momentum that spring, it became apparent that the fellow running the campaign for Jim wasn’t up to the job, and he was succeeded by none other than Jim’s beloved former graduate assistant who came back to Delaware from Florida where he had been teaching and coaching basketball. He came back to do more than run the campaign, though. He came back to reclaim his girlfriend with whom I had developed a warm friendship. And reclaim her he did. The jerk!

Her name was Cindy Skibicki. Somehow, though, it all worked out. He turned out to be an excellent campaign manager. She became the campaign’s volunteer coordinator. Later, I would become the treasurer and fundraiser. Brian Murphy was the driver, and Bud Freel kept the books, although there were times when he probably had to cook the books. The good news was that we raised $60,000, more money than any Democratic candidate for Congress had raised in state history. The bad news was that the DuPont campaign probably made more money in interest on their campaign treasury than we raised.

Oh, yes. The name of the fellow who came back from Florida was, none other, than Ed Freel. He would become a lifelong friend and help me in more ways than I can count. Cindy would go off to law school, fall in love with and marry a really great guy she met there. They came back to Delaware to work and raise a family. They’ve been wonderful supporters in just about every one of my campaigns since then, and they are here today. Please join me in a warm round of applause for Cindy Skibicki Collins and her husband Tom, whose middle name I’ll always believe was “Lucky.”

I learned a lot from Jim and Ada Leigh Soles that year. I learned, for example, that winning a campaign – while all consuming – was not the most important thing in the world. Upon hearing of Jim’s untiring pursuit of Ada Leigh to be his wife, I was reminded of all that we can accomplish when we refuse to give up. I learned not to be afraid to take on a giant who had fame and fortune and a good family name on his side. I learned that even when you take that giant on, if you have a clear vision of where you would lead your state or nation, possessed the values that people seek in their leaders, you can attract the volunteers, voters and money that will enable you to run a credible campaign. I learned that it’s okay to criticize your opponent’s positions on issues you disagreed upon, but it’s not okay to bend the truth or fail to tell the truth. I learned that public service is a noble calling.

That it’s a privilege to serve and to win the trust of the people you serve. I learned to remain true to your beliefs and core values and to be yourself, not try to become someone you’re not. I learned to surround yourself with the best people you can find and to lead them by example by working 16 hour days when necessary. I learned that winning is a lot more fun than losing, but when you come up short, you still make that congratulatory call on Election Night and show up on Returns Day. You shake hands with your opponent and his supporters as well as with your own. You ride in that horse-drawn carriage with him and his family, as well as with your own, and you hold your head up high as you ride along a parade route winds through Georgetown, Delaware, ending up at the Circle for the ceremonial burying of the hatchet.

Jim Soles never ran for public office again, but he accomplished a lot more during the 35 years that followed than many of the people with whom I’ve served. He and Ada Leigh went on to be married for 50 years and raised two of the finest young women I’ve ever known – Nancy Beth and Catherine – daughters that any of us would be proud to call our own, women who went on to marry terrific men and to raise children of their own, whom Jim and Ada Leigh adored. Ada Leigh turned out to have the magic touch as a candidate and was elected to the Delaware General Assembly some five times, campaigns in which Jim was the wind beneath her wings. She served on the Joint Finance Committee and was admired by Democrat and Republican colleagues alike, before later coming to the Governor’s Office as a senior advisor during my first term as governor.

And Jim continued to teach at the University of Delaware for another 35 years where he had burnished his reputation as one of the best teachers on campus, a fact borne out by his sold-out classes and being chosen by the student body, not once, but twice as the University’s Outstanding Professor and also as its Outstanding Advisor. To my knowledge, he may have been the only faculty member invited by a graduating class to be their commencement speaker in the past 50 years. He would become chairman of the Political Science Department and, later, chairman of the Board of Trustees of Delaware Technical and Community College for over a decade. And, he would lead a citizens advisory panel that developed the concept of a national park for Delaware that focuses on the early colonial settlement of our state, leading up to the ratification to the ratification of the Constitution whose birth we celebrate today.

Part of Jim’s magic in the classroom was his ability to make what students studied in his courses both real and relevant in their lives. He didn’t just teach courses in political science, he ensured that many of them would volunteer in campaigns, both Democrat and Republican. He didn’t just teach about the Constitution, he literally became James Madison, one of its principle authors. There is an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this, “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Jim involved thousands of students like no other professor they’d ever seen or heard. And, as a result, they understood not only how to become better citizens but the need to do so.

Not only was Jim Soles beloved as a professor, he was much sought after as an advisor and probably advised – both officially and unofficially – more students over his years at the U of D than any other single person. He always made time for lost souls in need of direction who would drop by his office. He helped many of them find their ways to productive lives and successful careers. They have helped lead our state, build its economy, serve in our military, and educate our students. One became Chancellor of Delaware’s Court of Chancery. Another our Secretary of State. And, one of them who was especially lucky ended up serving as our governor and in the U.S. Senate.

Among those people Jim advised and mentored were students who never took a single class from him. I was one of them. Ed Freel was another. Two years after Jim lost his congressional race, he encouraged me to run for state treasurer when no other Democrat sought the office, taking on the Republican who – two years earlier – had been the treasurer for Pete duPont’s reelection campaign. You know, the one with all the money. In that race and in the next eleven, Jim and Ada Leigh remained steadfast supporters and close friends of mine, providing me with invaluable counsel, constructive criticism when I needed it, and a lot of love along the way.

After six years as state treasurer, and encouraged by Senator Joe Biden, Ed and Jim, I jumped into Delaware’s congressional race five minutes before the filing deadline in late July of 1982 against three-term incumbent Tom Evans. Thankfully, Ed Freel came on board to manage the campaign. As we approached the end of September, we were being outraised by a 5-1 margin. To get back into the game, we scheduled a major D.C. fundraiser and invited hundreds of potential donors suggested by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Our hopes were sky on the evening of the reception. Unbelievably, it came and went bringing with it just two paying customers to our event. Just two. Ed and I rode home crestfallen.

To make matters worse, when Ed called Jim that night to share the bad news with him and to ask how the final copy looked of the tabloid that our volunteers would be lit-dropping on doorsteps across the state the next weekend, Jim’s news was even worse. It fact, Jim’s precise words in that North Carolina twang were, “Ed, it’s CRAAAAP!”

But when the sun came up the next day, a sow’s ear had been turned into a silk purse with Jim’s help, and the tabloid that was dropped on doorsteps across the state the following weekend had been transformed, starting with a headline across the front page that Jim had written – “Tom Carper gives politics a good name in Delaware. He’ll give Delaware a good name in Washington, DC.” After that, we were on our way and won the race despite being outspent 4-1.

The 98th Congress was sworn in on January 3, 1983. One of the two largest freshmen classes in history, its members included John McCain, Tom Ridge, Connie Mack, John Kasich, Bill Richardson, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Barbara Boxer, John Spratt and me. The first major issue confronting us was the imminent collapse of Social Security. We learned at our orientation in December that the Social Security Trust Fund would run out of money sometime later in 1983. “Did that mean Social Security checks would have to be reduced?” we asked. The answer was, “No. They’ll be stopped.” When we asked why somebody hadn’t done something about this, we learned that they had.

Earlier in 1982, a blue ribbon commission led by Alan Greenspan, and including Senators Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Congressman Claude Pepper, had been formed. They’d held hearings across the country, gathered input from experts and from ordinary people, and prepared a series of recommendations for the new Congress to consider once we’d taken our oaths to defend and uphold the Constitution.

A couple of Irish pols were running the country at the time. One of them, Ronald Reagan, a Republican was President. The other, Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, was Speaker of the House. Both of them embraced the commission’s recommendations which were a combination of benefit cuts and increases in Social Security payroll taxes.

Because of the highly-charged nature of any tinkering with Social Security, both Democrat and Republican members of the House and Senate felt the need for political “air cover” as the debate in Congress on the commission’s contentious recommendations loomed. Interestingly, Republican President Ronald Reagan provided that air cover for Democrats by saying that any Republican who attacked a Democrat for supporting the package would be disowned. Democrat Speaker O’Neill provided it for Republicans by saying that any Democrat who attacked a Republican for supporting the package would be disowned. It worked. The lion’s share of us drank the Kool Aid, and the package passed overwhelmingly, putting Social Security on a sound footing for another 40 years or so.

Well, let’s fast forward to today. As our country heads for a fiscal cliff on January 1 when the so-called Bush tax cuts expire, and additional deep across-the-board cuts occur in both domestic and defense spending, economists of all stripes warn of double-dip recession or worse. Meanwhile, with the Postal Service losing $25 million a day and corn prices at record levels due to the worst drought in decades, the House can’t even bring itself to take up bipartisan postal or agriculture legislation that the Senate passed months ago with substantial bipartisan margins. As our nation, along with its government agencies and businesses, are battered every day by cyber attacks, threatening mass casualty events and the theft of both highly classified information and a wide range of intellectual property, meaningful cybersecurity legislation languishes in the Senate and House.

A little more than a year ago when our nation was on the brink of defaulting on its debt for the first time in history, President Obama and House Speaker Boehner attempted to negotiate a comprehensive deficit reduction plan reflecting the one negotiated a year earlier by a bipartisan deficit commission led by Erskine Bowles and former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson. When the Speaker took possible agreements to his caucus in the House, he basically was told, not once but twice, not to agree with those deals if he wanted to remain Speaker. When those negotiations faltered, a so-called Super Committee was created to continue negotiations among members of Congress.

Unlike the earlier Greenspan Commission, this one did not produce a “super” agreement. That failure allowed a first round of across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending to go into effect last fall. If not ultimately repealed, they would effectively reduce discretionary spending by just over $1 trillion during the next decade. A second round of across-the-board cuts of that magnitude looms on January 1 unless a Bowles-Simpson-like agreement is adopted by the end of this year.

How did it come to this? At the risk of sounding a partisan note, I trace it back it to back to several factors. On the one hand, we’ve witnessed the election of close to a hundred Tea Party Republicans in the House, many of whom don’t subscribe to the two “C’s” and make no bones about it.

A lot of them don’t feel they were given a mandate by their constituents to come to Washington and compromise on much of anything. The Republican leadership of the House is loathe to splinter its caucus and work across the aisle to reach compromises with Democrats like Steny Hoyer and Chris Von Holland of Maryland and with our own John Carney, so the House Republican leadership continues to look for solutions to our nation’s problems that can gain pass with almost all Republican votes and no Democrat votes. The end result is that too little gets done.

The most-asked question of me in Delaware during the recently-concluded August recess was essentially this – “Why can’t Washington be more like Delaware?” We get along here. Democrats and Republicans generally work together. We even seem to like one another. We balance the budget each year. We get things done. “Why can’t we do that in Washington?” they ask.

To tell you the truth, the wheels began coming off the wagon long before the Tea Party Republicans began arriving in Washington. I witnessed the early change firsthand when Newt Gingrich succeeded moderate Illinois Republican Bob Michel in leadership in the House in 1989 and brought down House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, on allegations of ethical misconduct. Speaker Gingrich then led a successful GOP effort to take over the House in 1994, launching his “Contract for America.”

Even before then, though, gerrymandering of congressional districts was on its way to becoming an art form. Over time, both parties perfected the redrawing of congressional districts into districts some of which Democrat were almost sure to win and others of which Republicans were bound to win. Since the activists in the Democrat Party who are most involved in primaries tend to be left of center, the Democrat candidates nominated in many of these gerrymandered districts often turn out to be – Surprise! – well to the left of center. Similarly, since the activists in the Republican Party who are most involved in primaries tend to be right of center, the Republican candidates nominated in many of these districts often turn out to be – Surprise! – well to the right of center. Over time, we’ve seen a growing number of very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans report for duty in the House of Representatives.

Not surprisingly, they don’t always work well together, and gridlock follows. Add to that the creation of Super PAC’s and the ability of wealthy individuals, corporations and others to donate almost unlimited amounts of money to impact federal campaigns – much of it anonymous thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 – and you have the makings of a democracy that’s on the ropes.

This week, Senate Majority Harry Reid told his Democratic colleagues that in the six year that he’d held his leadership post, the minority party had initiated some 380 filibusters just on the motion to proceed to a bill. In other word, to take up a bill for consideration and debate. He went on to add that during the six years that Lyndon Johnson served as Senate majority leader, this occurred only once.

Nominations to fill important executive branch positions may languish for months, even years, resulting in something I call “executive branch Swiss cheese.” Judicial nominations sometimes don’t fare much better. Currently, there are 77 vacant federal judgeships. A month or so ago, the lion’s share of Republican senators even blocked the confirmation of a federal judge in Oklahoma recommended by that state’s two Republican senators to President Obama. Go figure.

Well, so much for the problem, what do we do about it? Believe it or not, California – a poster child of a state that hasn’t worked well for years – may actually be providing a roadmap out of what Chris Coons sometimes calls “Crazy Town” back to something I’ll call “Sanity City.”

They’ve changed the way that congressional districts are drawn by empowering a citizens panel to draw district lines so they look and feel more like those of days gone by rather than districts that look like they were drawn by people on something that’s probably not legal in most states. Equally interesting is a change in that state’s primary laws that provides for open primaries in which voters of one party can vote if they wish in the primary of another party.

Critics of that change assert that it will allow registered voters in Party A to nominate the weakest nominee in Party B so that Party A’s nominee can then go on to win the general election. Proponents of the change assert, however, that it just might pave the way to electing more center-right Republicans and more center-left Democrats across the state who – when they report for duty either in Sacramento or in Washington, DC,-- just might actually be able to work together to get things done. In time, we’ll find out who’s right and who’s wrong. Meanwhile, other states have taken notice and are pondering or experimenting with ideas of their own.

I think they may be on to something. One thing is for sure, though. We need more Democrats, more Republicans and even a few Independents in Congress today who are bridge builders, regardless of which political party they might be members of. One of the most unlikely, but most effective, team of bridge builders that I’ve seen in the Senate over the past decade was the political odd couple of Ted Kennedy (D-MA), one of the body’s most liberal members, and Mike Enzi (R-WY), one of the body’s most conservative members. Together, for nearly a decade, they took turns leading the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, affectionately known as the “H.E.L.P. Committee.” I once asked Mike Enzi how the two of them were able to hammer out compromises on so many thorny issues. “It’s simple,” he said. “Ted and I subscribe to the ‘80-20 Rule.’ We agree on 80 percent of things most of the time, and we disagree on the other 20 percent most of the time. What we do is focus on the 80 percent that we agree on and set the other 20 percent aside until another day.” When I asked Ted about it, he agreed, explaining that while he stood ready to compromise with Mike and other Republicans on policy, he would never compromise on principle.

Ted Kennedy and Mike Enzi trusted one another. Along with members of their staff, they spent weeks and sometimes months looking for bipartisan solutions on some of the toughest issues of our day. Unfortunately, we can’t pass a law that stipulates members of the House or Senate have to start trusting each other or work together across the aisle, and we’re not likely to add the 80-20 Rule as an amendment to the Constitution anytime soon.

What we can do as citizens, though, is try harder to ascertain which of the candidates asking for our support is most interested or most likely to focus on serving as a bridge between the two parties and help reach bipartisan solutions to the challenges we face. The genius behind what Jim Soles tried to do in courses dealing with the Constitution or practical politics was to better prepare his students for the responsibilities of citizenship. That way, even if the Senate doesn’t change the rules that make it impossible to filibuster the motion by the majority leader to proceed to a bill or we don’t change the rules so that a filibuster can be short-circuited with just 51 votes instead of 60, we’ve improved the chances of putting more people on the job in the Capital who will work to get to “yes” on issues as diverse as deficit reduction, tax policy, strengthening the economic recovery, saving the Postal Service, protecting against cyber attacks, bringing our agriculture policy into the 21st Century, or allowing nominations for executive branch or judicial vacancies to come up for debate and a vote.

These challenges, however, pale by comparison to the challenges that our Founding Fathers faced 225 years ago in drafting our Constitution. Among the thorny issues they dealt with were slavery and the rights of women in this new democracy. Or, how to ensure that a President wouldn’t someday morph into a monarch like King George? Did we really need three branches of government? How should federal judges be selected? What does “the advice and consent of the Senate” actually mean? And why do we need a bicameral federal legislature where every state has two senators and the number of a state’s U.S. Representatives is determined by its population? How should we make it possible to amend the Constitution once it was ratified? What role should the states play in this nascent country? And the list goes on and on.

Yet somehow they got the job done, or should I say, they got the job started, because no sooner had we ratified the Constitution, than we started thinking about how to amend it with what turned to be the Bill of Rights. And for over two centuries, our Constitution, and the United States of America for that matter, have been a work in progress as we strive to make this union of ours more perfect.

Every now and then after a particularly disappointing week where we spent more time in the Senate attempting to score political points than trying to govern, I’ll get off the train in Wilmington and head for home. There I’ll pick up a well-read biography of Henry Clay that a friend gave me a couple of years ago, knowing that I’m a distant relative of Clay. I only have to read a chapter before I’m stuck with this reality – If we think our country is in a mess now, we’d do well to revisit the history of the first half of the 19th Century. Given the turmoil of those years, we’re lucky to have made it to the Civil War, much less through it. But our union did survive that war, and we went on to overcome the Great Depression, win two world wars and the Cold War to boot. In fact, America emerged at the dawn of the 21st Century not only as a nation at peace but as a nation with the strongest economy on earth, one with balanced budgets and surpluses for as far as the eye could see, the most productive work force on earth. We were arguably the most admired nation on this planet and the mightiest force for justice, too. If we can accomplish all that, we can probably find our way through the minefield that we find ourselves in today.

A lot of people are counting on us to do just that. Some of them can be found several times each month at the foot of the escalator leading up to the basement of our Capitol. I see them when we get off the subway that takes us to the Capitol to vote. They are disabled GI’s, oftentimes in wheelchairs. They were wounded in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are missing arms or legs. Some are missing both. Some have no eyesight. But even if they’ve lost all of those things, there’s one thing they haven’t lost. It’s their devotion to our country and the hope that their country won’t forget them in their hour of need.

I always try to stop and say hello, ask what branch of service they served in, mention that I spent 23 years of my life as a naval flight officer, and thank them for their service to our country. A month or two ago, one of them said to me, “Thank you for your service and your sacrifice, senator.” I had a hard time getting his words out of my mind that day and that night. “Thank you for your service and sacrifice, senator.” “ My sacrifice?” I thought. What about his sacrifice?

His sacrifice and the sacrifice of the others who visit our Capitol from time to time at that spot deserve far more than mere words of thanks. They merit a solemn rededication from each of us to the principles on which our nation is built – principles that are embedded in the preamble of our Constitution.

A commitment to redouble our efforts to form a more perfect Union, to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. A commitment not to living out our lives in blue states or red states, but a commitment to making better the lives of all of us who live in these United States.

The Constitution that Delaware ratified on December 7, 1787 was not perfect. We’ve spent the past 225 years trying to make it more so. Hopefully, our children and grandchildren will make it better still as informed and enlightened citizens. The kind that Jim Soles helped to educate and send off into the world from Newark, Delaware as he sought to ensure that America comes closer to living up to its true promise, a promise that’s embodied in the Constitution whose birthday we celebrate today.