By Dalton Karwacki
In order to answer the challenges facing the United States, Americans must make difficult decisions in the near future with regard to how the country defines itself, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez said during a speech in Daly’s Mercer Room on Tuesday.
Menendez, the junior senator from New Jersey, spent an hour speaking to a crowd of about 100 people as part of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics’ Governing New Jersey series. In his remarks, he explained his own vision for America and examined the importance of having goals for the nation’s progress in forming policy.
“I want to talk about what’s happening both domestically and internationally, not just in terms of how it fits into a particular political agenda, but whether it satisfies our vision of what we want America to be and what we want it to represent to the world,” he said.
Menendez, a Democrat, said that he views America as a country that does “the right thing,” even if it is difficult to do so, and that leads the world in terms of innovation and technological and economic advancement.
He explained the origin of this belief by describing his childhood. He said that his mother, a Cuban political refugee, played a huge role in forming this view. He pointed to her generosity and compassion as being particularly influential. He said that when he was growing up in a tenement in Union City, N.J., his mother would often invite people from the building for dinner.
“One day I asked her how it was that we had people coming over for dinner when there wasn’t all that much here,” he said. “And she said to me, ‘Son, these people are worse off than we are. We have an opportunity to share with them and that is ultimately the right thing to do.’”
According to Menendez, that idea of “the right thing to do” stuck with him and drives him in everything he does. He discussed how this vision of America has shaped his stance on various issues. Economically, for instance, he said that there is no need to sacrifice economic and technological innovation in the name of fiscal responsibility. Instead, he said that reforming the tax code to be deficit neutral and easing the burden on lower- and middle-class families is the proper course of action.
He said that the way government prioritizes education plays a huge role in America’s standing in the world. To this end, he said that America needs a robust educational system and well-educated citizens.
“To lead in the world, to be the center of innovation, research, development and technology in the world, we need to have the most highly educated generation of Americans the world has ever known,” he said. “The world in which these young people are growing up is different than the one I grew up in. We are globally challenged. The boundaries of mankind have largely been erased in the pursuit of human capital, the creation of a product or the delivery of a service.”
Menendez discussed the importance of having a vision in mind when creating policy, as a clear goal is the only way to present a coherent image to the world.
“I’ve been giving a lot of thought to a couple of questions that I think we need to think of as a people and as a country,” Menendez said. “What is our vision of the America that we call home? What is it that we stand for as a people and a nation? What is it that we want life in America to be?”
He cited the debate in Washington over the federal budget as a particular area where lawmakers should keep their vision for America in mind.
“As we’re debating budget cuts, we have to ask, do we want an America that leads the world in innovation, that creates prosperity, growth and jobs, the America that can continue to be a beacon of light for the rest of the world,” he said.
Menendez also said that America has enjoyed a position of global leadership because of the vision that its leaders have held and that this ideal cannot be lost if its position is to be maintained.
“Our leadership in the world is not accidental,” he said. “It did not come because we as a nation chose to disinvest in America’s future. These were choices we made. We had a vision of what we wanted America to be and what we wanted our democracy to represent around the world. As we face difficult choices and world events, we need to decide what our vision of America is and what we want the outcome to be.”
Menendez said that it is ultimately fine for people to have differing visions for the country’s future, as long as the ensuing debate is based on the truth.
“The debate has to begin and end on truth,” he said. “We can disagree on how we might achieve the same policy goals, but what we cannot disagree on is the importance of basing that policy on fact.”