Late last February, less than two weeks after Bill Clinton's Senate acquittal, the Pew Center for the People and the Press released some startling poll results. The American public wanted two things in their next chief executive. He or she should continue the Clinton administration's policies more or less, but not be weighed down by Clintonesque personal indiscretions. This was hardly surprising. Prosperous and at peace, the nation had just endured a year of mortifying scandal which, even if it had been exploited by the President's most loathsome enemies, had been caused by his own inexplicable transgressions. The surprise was the poll's other finding: Al Gore was running a good ten points behind his most probable Republican challenger, Texas Governor George W. Bush.
And thus the mystery. If the public wants Clintonite policies without Clintonite character flaws, Al Gore doesn't just fit the bill: he is the bill. Mature and experienced, intelligent and educated—by any measure, Gore is one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for the presidency. So what's the problem? That's the question Democrats of all stripes have been asking themselves for the past two months. And like a symptom in search of a diagnosis, the irrepressible questioning has spotlighted every conceivable shortcoming of the Vice President's incipient campaign.
Whether these difficulties will land a Republican in the White House remains to be seen. But the second-guessing has had the improbable effect of making a serious challenger out of the man who had until recently looked like the most unlikely of candidates, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. The Gore campaign went to great lengths to ward off potential challengers, particularly ones like Richard Gephardt, who could play on the lingering intra-party divisions over free trade and fiscal policy. But, paradoxically, the ideological similarity between Bradley and Gore has actually made the Vice President's task more difficult, denying him an effective New Democrat ground to campaign on, and focusing the debate on those aspects of Clinton's tenure that have left Democrats most weary and discontented. In a strange, unexpected way the battle has turned into an intra-party proxy battle over the Clinton legacy.
The great irony is how very similar Gore and Bradley really are. Both were among the most respected and admired members of the Senate Democratic caucus. And it's hard to find a Democrat who will say anything really disparaging about either one of them. Still more significant is their deep ideological similarity. A comparison of their Senate voting records from the Reagan and Bush years reveals little that would mark either as clearly more liberal or more conservative than the other. Both occasionally bucked their party. And Bradley was more the maverick (he was one of only two senators, for instance, to vote against Alan Greenspan's confirmation in 1987). But if Bradley and Gore followed different paths to the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, both ended up at more or less the same place.
And this, of course, makes Gore's problems all the more difficult to explain. Given his advantages in political loyalties, campaign money, and organization, the race should hardly be a contest. Some of Gore's difficulties are, to be sure, the inescapable result of his front-runner status. As the only candidate in the 2000 race being accorded sustained press attention, Gore is left hanging like a piñata, available for everyone to take a swipe at. And in the primary campaign he faces something of the difficulty which that other pre-emptive front-runner, Walter Mondale, faced in 1984. Every primary win for Bradley will be a great victory; and every near-win will be too.
But is there more to it than this? Most pundits reckon that the nation's collective exhaustion with the Clinton scandals has somehow rubbed off on Gore, despite the fact that his personal reputation is universally acknowledged to be squeaky clean. There's a measure of truth in that reasoning. But it's not specific enough. It misses the nuts and bolts of the problem. A better description is one I heard from one longtime observer of Democratic politics who has watched Bradley and Gore for years. While acknowledging that both men are deeply engaging in small groups and that both were among the more serious people in the Senate, he told me, Bradley somehow conveys a more expansive, unfettered spirit. "Compared to Bradley, Gore seems much more careful, cautious. It's a function somehow of his being in this administration, only occasionally letting himself slip off the wagon. I don't remember that about Gore before 1992."
As this observer notes, it's not simply that voters are dismissive of Gore because of Clinton's excesses. Something about Gore has changed. With all the hard fought battles this administration has endured, all the frequently frivolous but always insistent criticism, Gore has adopted an ingrown caution, a tendency to be too careful and too restrained in too many situations. Even an observer who wants to be excited by Gore can't help but feel a pained discomfort watching his recent speeches. You wish he could bump it up a notch or find some way to burst through that invisible bubble which has been created for him by high expectations and too many media handlers.
Consider Gore's performance at the memorial service for the slain students in Littleton, Colorado. You don't expect Gore to be another Bill Clinton in such settings. No politician in recent American history even approaches Clinton when it comes to speaking to the nation in moments of collective grief. In a forum like Littleton, Clinton probably could have gotten Phyllis Schlafly nibbling her lip and wiping back tears from her eyes. Gore was disappointing in a different way. It's not that what he said was so bad—either in content or delivery—it's that it should have been easy to be so good. All he had to do was open up, cut free from the prepared remarks, and let the people see the deep feeling that was undoubtedly within him. But he couldn't let go.
Nowhere are Gore's nagging troubles and Bradley's surprising strength more apparent than in Washington State. Given the Vice President's strong affiliation with high-tech industry and environmental causes, Washington should be prime Gore territory. But though Gore has high-level endorsements from Democrats like Senator Patty Murray and Cong ressman Norm Dicks, Bradley is making significant headway. He has a growing list of endorsements from local politicians; and he's been able to raise money from a host of former and current Microsoft employees, as well as Starbucks coffee mogul Steve Schultz—who raised lots of money for Bill Clinton in 1996. Some of Bradley's strength stems from anti-Gore animus at Microsoft—which holds Gore in part responsible for the administration's antitrust lawsuit against the company. But, as one longtime observer of Washington politics told me, the deeper problem for Gore is a widespread feeling among Washington Democrats that the Vice President is simply not up to the challenge of rallying voters outside the party's base.
Though Gore is an ardent free trader, the state's new class of pro-business Democrats are trepidatious about Gore's "unleashing" his environmentalist agenda if he were to become president—a fact that puts Bradley in the odd position of running to Gore's right. At the same time, however, many dedicated environmentalists are soured on Gore because at various points over the last seven years he has failed to intercede for this or that endangered creature or imperiled plot of land. Gore even suffers for the administration's perceived rough handling of the western states during Clinton's first term. Taken together, these myriad discontents point not to some underlying disagreement over policy or style, but to the more intractable problem that familiarity breeds contempt. Gore is suffering from every inadequacy of the Clinton years, but getting little of the credit. Part of the magic of a successful campaign is that voters of disparate interests and concerns project onto the candidate their own desires and aspirations. But all of Gore's commitments are known. His candidacy leaves nothing to the imagination. And this is the void into which Bradley has been able to insinuate himself. Bradley's candidacy flourishes on novelty.
If the vice presidency has made Gore more careful and cautious, relative anonymity has somehow liberated the once stilted and distant former senator from New Jersey. In fact, the people around Bradley believe that—for all his connections and political strengths—Gore is their perfect opponent. Against any other candidate, Bradley's shy, cerebral manner would be a distinct liability. But not against Gore. Bradley's lack of charisma, they reason, bespeaks an unvarnished authenticity while Gore's signals too much scripting.
Gore's timid, script-bound demeanor might not resonate so palpably if these same qualities were not mirrored in the policy agenda he has thus far set forth for his campaign. To date, the Gore agenda is a bevy of mini-reforms and morselized new government programs. Fighting urban sprawl may be a commendable idea. But it's hardly the sort of government initiative you want to kick off the new millennium. Some of this is not Gore's fault, but rather the inherent difficulty of running for president as a sitting vice president. It's hard for Gore to strike forth with any bold new agenda for fear of getting in the way of the message of Bill Clinton, who will after all be president for another 20 months.
But the deficiency runs deeper than the predicament of the vice presidency. Read up on Gore's campaign literature and you will find numerous references to innovative government but much less attention to actual political issues. This is not just election year caution. It's actually vintage Gore. In policy circles Gore has been widely—and rightly—credited for spearheading the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government initiative, "a reform effort" which, in the Gore campaign's words "has eliminated waste and inefficiency throughout the federal government, to make it cost less and work better for the American people." This effort to make government more effective and efficient is salutary and important, especially if progressives are to restore the American public's faith in government action. But it is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition for a vital Democratic politics.
Somehow the same old small-scale reforms just don't have the same magic in Gore's hands as they do in Clinton's. In part this is a testament to Bill Clinton's political acumen: he is so adept at connecting widely felt public concerns to concrete government action that he can often make even picayune government initiatives seem consequential and praiseworthy. But at a deeper level Gore and his advisors seem not to have fully appreciated the degree to which Clinton's success with the micro-initiative approach has been rooted in the unique history of his own time in office. If Democrats indulge Clinton's incrementalism, they do so in part because he tried to do big things early in his administration. Health care failed. But Clinton's 1993 budget bill—passed at great cost—restored much of the tax code's progressivity and deserves a large measure of the credit for balancing the budget. Even Clinton's much-ridiculed advocacy of school uniforms and the like has actually been part of a rather drawn out series of parries with congressional Republicans—a sort of death by a thousand micro-initiatives, which has allowed Clinton to slowly deflate many of the potent issues that Republicans had once so formidably used against Democrats. For each of these reasons the micro-initiatives that have worked for Bill Clinton may not work for Al Gore.
To capitalize on this apparent deficiency in Gore, Bradley has made tackling "the big issues" a centerpiece of his incipient campaign. In his speech to Virginia Democrats last February he criticized those who say "we can't do anything about the big challenges facing us as a nation; that the days of big ideas are over." For Bradley the "big ideas" mantra serves a number of political purposes—not the least of which is the way it enables him to straddle the ideological divides within the party, be all things to all people, and run simultaneously to Gore's right and his left. That expansive ambiguity is what has allowed Bradley to garner support from Washington State's pro-business Democrats while also netting the endorsement of liberals like Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.
Like so much of the Bradley campaign, the big ideas theme mixes genuine facets of Bradley's political persona with opportunistic swipes at the Clinton-Gore record. It's no surprise that Bradley can quicken the blood of his audience when he tells them that Democrats "need to get clear on where our commitments lie and then not only win again, but lead again." The only problem is that thus far Bradley has been distressingly short on specifics. In fact, Bradley so frequently talks about big ideas without coming up with any specific big ideas that you begin to suspect that he doesn't so much like big ideas as much as what one might call the idea of big ideas.
When I asked Bradley's press secretary about the lack of specifics, he told me that Bradley would start rolling out some of his big ideas in the fall. Fair enough, I thought. It's hard to criticize Bradley for his lack of specifics when Gore and Bush are being maddeningly vague about their policy goals. But when a candidate talks up a campaign about big ideas you expect that he means more than that his policy shop will come up with more voluminous position papers. You assume he means that he comes to the race with a vision of where he wants to take the country and a set of ideas for how to make that vision a reality. If that's the case, then Bradley shouldn't have to wait six months to let us know what he's got up his sleeve. He should be able to tell us now.
The Man With Few Enemies
But if there are questions about Bradley's big ideas there is no shortage of veteran Democrats willing to vouch for his bona fides. Few people in Democratic politics have anything bad to say about Bradley and many are effusive in their praise. When I asked one prominent liberal tax policy analyst for his opinion of Bradley he simply said: "Brilliant." Bradley, he told me, quietly but effectively championed revenue-neutral tax reform for years before finally bringing it to fruition in the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Others who watched Bradley during his career in the Senate speak of his genuineness and his deep-seated and abiding concern for a handful of issues. One who worked with Bradley on the Senate Finance Committee during the 1980s said Bradley seemed more like a staffer than a senator in his desire to master and wrestle with all the complexities involved in the budget writing process.
When I asked the same observer to compare Bradley and Gore he pointed out that, while the two were almost indistinguishable ideologically, you can also judge politicians on a spectrum of how attuned they are to working with and courting special interests. And Bradley, he said, was as far as you could get on the extreme non–special interest side of that spectrum.
He illustrated his point with the following example. Bradley is widely and quite favorably associated with the 1986 Tax Reform Act—an omnibus piece of legislation that vastly simplified the federal tax code, reducing the number of brackets and tax shelters and taking substantial numbers of the working poor off the tax rolls altogether. Bradley is the hero of the Showdown at Gucci Gulch, the chronicle of the 1986 Tax Reform written by Wall Street Journal reporters Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray. But late in the legislative politicking a good deal of the tax relief for the working poor got stripped out of the bill. As the bill was being wrapped up the Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood offered each member of the committee the chance to enter in his or her own riders for the final bill—a standard perk of committee membership. In the workings of the Senate, this is when you stick in a line item for a subsidy for a sports stadium in your state or a tax break for a favored contributor. Bradley chose to reinsert the provision for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Indifference like that to the iron laws of legislative log-rolling can be a tonic after the currying to special interests that has undeniably characterized the Clinton-Gore administration. And this sort of benign disinterestedness or detachment runs through everything you hear about Bradley. Consider Bradley's decision to run for president. By every rule of conventional politics, the time was right for Bradley to run for president in 1988. Fresh from his role in tax reform, he almost certainly could have defeated Michael Dukakis, and may well have become president. But he said he "wasn't ready." Again he could have run in 1992 but "an inner voice told him not to do it." Now, in 2000, when every indicator says not to run, when the sitting vice president has it all wrapped up, now he decides to throw his hat in the ring.
But if that sort of quirky, go-it-alone political individualism stands out as one of Bradley's more admirable qualities, it also points toward the more questionable side of his political character. During his tenure in the Senate, Bradley had about him the quality of a Moynihan-in-the-making—the sort of senator who looks to the big picture and asks the big questions, but sometimes turns a deaf ear to his constituents' more parochial and mundane concerns. Bradley never got on overly well with courthouse politicos back in New Jersey. And that may be one of the reasons his more politically minded successor, Senator Robert Torricelli, is an ardent backer of Al Gore. It's hard not to admire Bradley for choosing tax relief for the working poor over federal largesse for some favored constituency back in New Jersey—especially when no one was looking. But the same political instincts, or lack thereof, were no doubt in part responsible for his near defeat against a political unknown named Christie Whitman when he ran for re-election to the Senate in 1990.
In contrast to the sometimes crassly poll-driven Clinton White House, it's easy to romanticize Bradley's indifference to playing the political game. But the missteps that got Bradley in trouble in 1990 were not all sacrifices for principle. The common wisdom in New Jersey at the time was that he had just let himself get out of touch with his constituents. He refused to venture an opinion on the Florio tax increase, which was then roiling New Jersey politics. To do good things politicians first have to get elected. And on that count Bradley has an uneven record. Part of the bargain that Democrats made with Bill Clinton in 1992 was based on his being just the opposite sort of character. Democrats of many political stripes tethered their hopes and aspirations to Clinton's titanic ambition and consummate political skills, hoping that his talent for political survival would ensure electoral and legislative success. The results on that count have sometimes been mixed. And some question the relative weight Clinton gives to personal ambition and political conviction. But it's hard to say if Bill Bradley could have managed to turn back the Republican tide as skillfully as Bill Clinton did in 1995 and 1996.
Indeed, if Bradley's role in the tax reform of 1985 and 1986 showed him at his best, his more ambivalent role during the Republican revolution of 1995 and 1996 may have shown him at his worst. The more critical observers of Bradley's tenure in the Senate fault him for a certain ingrained quality of indecision, a diffidence in the face of political commitment that belies his current campaign rhetoric. Already, during the health care debate of 1994, Bradley had remained aloof, denying his support to any specific plan until the very last moment, and in so doing playing his own small part in ensuring the failure of reform. The valedictory statement he gave when he announced his retirement from the Senate in August of 1995 was a sort of "pox on both your houses" indictment of the two party system. "The political debate," Bradley intoned, "has settled into two familiar ruts. The Republicans are infatuated with the 'magic' of the market and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom, and the Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems, and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can't control." The statement, a somewhat gratuitous swipe at his own party, was perfectly pitched to get rave reviews from high-minded pundits who were then bewailing the fact that so many moderates from both parties were choosing not to run for re-election. But as one commentator wrote at the time, this was really little more than an elaborate exercise in clichés dressed up to look like political wisdom.
And if it was a questionable thing for Bradley to say, it was an even more questionable time for him to say it. In August of 1995 Newt Gingrich's Republican revolutionaries were at full throttle. And the body politic was careening toward the epic government shutdowns which would eventually ensure Bill Clinton's re-election and turn the tide on the Republican ascendancy of the middle 1990s. You can scarcely imagine a time in recent decades when the divisions between the two political parties were more stark and apparent; or a time when, from a Democratic perspective, the party stood more clearly on the side of political right.
Looking back, it's hard not to ask what on earth Bradley was thinking. The day after he announced his retirement, fellow senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told the New York Times that, under the new Republican majority, Bradley had been relegated to the sidelines on a number of issues he cared about deeply. "That is not a very exciting way to live," Moynihan opined, "and it is not a very cerebral way to live." True enough. The long days of the 104th Congress were far from the most pleasant times to be a Senate Democrat. But we don't hire senators to enjoy themselves or indulge their interest in the finer points of policy. If politics at its best is about principles and grand ideas, it is also a matter of doggedness and the willingness to stand and fight important political battles, even when they descend into the sort of nasty political trench warfare that characterized the 104th Congress. The middle 1990s were times of testing for all Democrats; and on that score Bradley comes up pretty short.
Whose Glass Jaw?
For all Bradley's untested glamour, it's far too early to write off the Vice President. There are reasons, after all, that they call them front-runners. If Gore's sheen of invincibility is brittle, his underlying strengths are formidable. He has more than enough endorsements and organizational strength to withstand a few primary campaign reverses. It is easy, moreover, to underestimate the depth and solidity of Gore's support within major Democratic constituencies like organized labor. It is conceivable that if a consensus takes shape that Gore can't be a winner against Bush in November, there could be a mass defection of high-level support from Gore to Bradley. But at the moment at least, for many reasons, that possibility seems remote. And with the press always creating new sensations only to knock them down, the moment of scrutiny for Bradley will come.
But the Vice President's current predicament does point up some important lessons about the Clinton legacy. Many of Clinton's critics in the Democratic Party, particularly on the left, complain that the Clinton years have yielded few tangible accomplishments. Health care reform failed. And to these same critics, free trade agreements and welfare reform are not accomplishments, but setbacks. It is undeniable that, contrary to what it seemed at the beginning, much of the Clinton presidency has been about forestalling the radical Republican assault on the New Deal state, rather than writing a new chapter in American progressivism.
But this doesn't mean there is nothing to the Clinton legacy—only that it is very much up for grabs, and uniquely dependent on what comes after it. Quite the opposite was true of a president like Lyndon Johnson, for example. Though Johnson left office in disgrace in 1969, the wholesale reforms he got enacted in 1965–1966 remained on the books nevertheless. They survived a dozen years with little alteration and even today still exist in their broad outlines. Though this administration's legislative accomplishments are considerable, its political legacy is to be measured less in specific programs than in the broad reconfiguration of the American political landscape that it has left in its wake. This is what Mario Cuomo was talking about at the 1996 Democratic convention, when he told the party's liberal wing that "President Clinton [had] found a way to preserve our party's basic principles while erasing the stigmas that had been branded upon our reputations over the years." He continued, "While making America stronger through these policies, one at a time, the President was lifting the albatross from around the neck of this great Democratic Party so that now, with all those stigmas virtually erased, we are free once again to be Democrats, progressive, constructive Democrats."
What Gore's current weakness shows is that that legacy is in a tenuous state. Look closely at recent horse-race polls and you will see the imprint of the deep political polarization of recent years. Every Republican voter knows to oppose Al Gore. But the Democrats and Independents who have reliably supported Bill Clinton seem to lack the same reflexive response. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole cut well into what was the Clinton vote. What that shows is that Democrats are having a difficult time translating the friendly political dynamics of the late 1990s from one candidate to another. Or, in other words, they are having difficulty embedding the political polarization of the late 1990s in a set of issues that can endure beyond the Clinton years.
In its best moments the Clinton administration has married a zeal for reform with an unvarnished political realism and an appreciation for the hard art of the possible. Though often criticized for it, the administration has frequently been at its best when recognizing the dangers of supporting policy initiatives that could not be sustained politically. With his lofty rhetoric about big ideas, Bradley may have tapped into a soft underbelly of discontent within the Democratic Party. But that does not mean he has arrived at a workable program for the party's or the nation's future. Moreover, to the extent that Bradley is free from the fetters of political compromise and Gore is entangled within them, that is because Bradley absented himself from some of the most trying of recent political battles. But Bradley's unexpected strength may have the salutary effect of showing the Gore campaign that a more aggressive, forward-looking approach is required.