The New Republic Special Endorsement Issue:
I worked closely with Al Gore in the first Clinton administration, and I admire
him. Gore is earnest and smart. For the past seven and a half years he's
taken on god-awful projects that no one else wanted to do--like
"reinventing government"--and has done them well. He's been loyal to a
fault. Contrary to his public persona, he has a droll sense of humor that
occasionally tips into deadpan sarcasm. So why do I support Bill Bradley?
And why do I continue to support him, even when his boat seems to be
sinking? Maybe it's because I kept clean for Gene, passed out leaflets as a
kid for Stevenson, and would have voted for Wilson in 1912. I'm a sucker for
decent, smart, soft-spoken idealists with lofty visions about where the
country should go and what we can do together. For good or ill, that
description fits Bradley, not Gore.
Start with the issues. I'll spare you the wonky details about Bradley's plans
for health care, education, campaign finance, gun control, and child poverty.
Nobody wants to hear about them, which is part of Bradley's problem. Yet
his are by far the boldest and most ambitious proposals put forward by any
candidate in this election.
Bradley's health care plan has taken a lot of knocks from Gore, but the
criticisms are unfounded. Yes, the Bradley plan would end Medicaid as a
separate program. But the ill-fated Clinton-Gore health plan of 1994 also
folded Medicaid into a comprehensive system, which is exactly what poor
people need if they want to get jobs with better wages and not worry about
losing their coverage. Unlike the convoluted plan of 1994, Bradley's proposal
builds on the same system that federal employees already use, and it
provides subsidies to people based on need. It covers almost everybody. By
comparison, Gore's new health care plan leaves most uninsured people
between the ages of 18 and 55 still uninsured.
Gore says that we can't afford Bradley's plan, that if we tried to fund it we
wouldn't have enough money left over to fix Medicare. But, hell, if we could
afford the universal health insurance that Clinton and Gore were peddling in
1994, when the federal deficit was still in the stratosphere, we can afford
Bradley's proposal now that we're enjoying unprecedented budget
surpluses. The nation is richer than it's ever been. If we can't get universal
health care now, when can we? Besides, there's greater urgency today.
When the Clinton-Gore plan was dreamed up, 39 million Americans lacked
health insurance. Now the number is 44 million and rising.
The only way we couldn't afford the Bradley plan would be if we were to use
a big chunk of the surplus to eliminate the federal debt, as Clinton and Gore
both want to do. But getting rid of the national debt should not be a priority.
As long as the debt doesn't rise as a proportion of national product (and by
that measure it's been falling now for several years), the critical issue isn't
how large it is in absolute dollars but what the borrowed money is used for.
Borrowing to give Americans healthy bodies and our kids good schools is a
sound investment that is no less important to the nation's future prosperity
than a factory made slightly cheaper to build because interest rates were
driven lower by debt repayment. Clinton talked this way in 1992. Bradley is
talking this way now. Gore isn't.
Sure, there's a case to be made for paying down the debt temporarily so we
can add debt again years from now when baby-boomer retirees begin to
draw on Social Security and boomer bodies begin deteriorating en masse.
But productivity is rising so fast that the nation will probably be able to take
care of doddering boomers without adding much debt. And besides, wealthy
Americans are becoming so much wealthier that a tiny wealth tax would
suffice to cover the boomers even if productivity gains didn't. (Lest he get
blamed for this harebrained Reich idea, Bradley has not suggested it.) The
point is that we can now afford to get on with the great unfinished agenda.
We don't have to settle for the Dick Morris policy miniatures that have been
the leitmotiv of Clinton and Gore since 1996--ideas that sound grand but are
wimpy relative to the scale of the problems they're supposed to address.
Nothing bold will happen after January 2001 unless a Democratic candidate
for president stirs public ambition during the campaign and creates a
mandate for it to happen.
Gore said the other day that he'd continue to pay down the debt even when
the economy slows, "just as a corporation has to cut expenses if revenues
fall off." He added that a recession should be viewed as an opportunity to
push cuts further "before any other options are considered." This is worse
than Reaganomics. It's Coolidgeomics. "He should wash his mouth out with
soap," Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow told The Wall Street Journal
when he heard this statement. If Americans want to elect a president who
believes the debt must be eliminated at all costs, let them elect a
Republican. I promise you he'll be a one-termer. The economy will shrivel,
and the Dems will be back in the White House for at least the next eight
It's not just health care and the budget. Gore is to the right of Bradley on
almost every important issue. Bradley wants to hold military spending where
it is and give a big boost to education. Gore wants to increase military
spending by $127 billion over the next decade--$12 billion more than the
increase he proposes for education. Bradley voted against the Republican
welfare plan, which Clinton ultimately signed. Gore was for it. (Before you
conclude that "welfare reform" was successful and Bradley's vote against it
was a mistake, watch what happens in the next recession when there's no
safety net for the unemployed poor.) Bradley has committed himself to
labor-law reforms like large penalties for employers who fire workers for
trying to form unions. Gore is vaguer about labor reform. And so on.
Now, you may believe the nation should move further to the right. Or you
may be among those who believe Clinton has repositioned the Democratic
Party in the center and thereby breathed new life into it. Both are
respectable views in Democratic circles. But they ignore the vast and
growing party of nonvoters. Many of these people didn't get much out of the
1990s boom. The median family income, adjusted for inflation, is only slightly
higher than it was ten years ago, even though the median family is working
a total of six weeks longer every year. A Democrat can ignite these
nonvoters' passions and interests only with a large vision of what we can do
together as a nation, not with promises of teensy incremental improvements
in health care, weensy reforms of schools, military buildups, and debt
Why does the AFL-CIO support Gore over Bradley? I suspect it's a matter of
"the devil you know...." Most union presidents have been in and around the
Clinton-Gore White House since January 1993. They haven't been delighted
with what it's brought them, but they'd rather stick with a sure thing. And
they've convinced themselves that, despite Gore's lukewarm support of
unions in the past and the dominance of anti-union Democratic Leadership
Council folk in Gore's inner circle, as president he'd be more sympathetic to
their cause than Bradley. I'm not so sure. Last week Gore told the AFL-CIO
executive council that, if they succeeded this year in derailing China's
admission to the World Trade Organization, once he was elected president
he'd scrap the current agreement and negotiate a much tougher one,
including labor protections. But the very next day he reassured Washington
business lobbies that he was fully behind the China trade deal the White
House had negotiated. Union leaders are winking at one another, thinking
they know where Gore really stands. Business leaders are winking at one
another, too, thinking they know. Is this clever politics on Gore's part or the
kind of slick double-talk that would quickly undermine confidence in a Gore
Lurking beneath all the substantive issues is the poison of money in politics.
Here, again, Bradley is a bolder reformer than Gore. Bradley is calling not
only for an end to soft money but for public financing of election campaigns,
including those for the House and Senate. He's even proposing a two-to-one
match of private donations with public financing for presidential primaries.
This goes way beyond anything Gore, or even John McCain, has proposed.
Bradley isn't a sudden convert to campaign finance reform--despite Gore's
claim on "Meet the Press" a few weeks ago that Bradley "went seventeen
years in the United States Senate before he ever sponsored a campaign
finance reform bill." Quite the contrary: As a senator, Bradley joined in
sponsoring campaign finance reform bills in each of six straight Congresses,
from 1985 to 1996, including the main campaign finance reform bills
considered and acted on by the Senate. In 1991 he was an original
cosponsor of S.3, the only comprehensive campaign finance reform bill to
pass Congress in the last quarter-century, which was vetoed by President
George Bush. Then-Senator Gore did not cosponsor this bill.
Indeed, Gore hasn't exactly distinguished himself on the subject of campaign
finance. Buddhist temples and "no controlling legal authority" aside, he has
some explaining to do about his role in a more serious breach of the spirit, if
not the letter, of the campaign finance laws. Starting way before the 1996
general election, Clinton and, presumably, his vice president oversaw the
creation of "issue ads" that beat up on Bob Dole and the Republicans. The
ads were developed and run by the same political consultants who designed
the official Clinton-Gore campaign ads. But, rather than being paid for by the
Clinton-Gore campaign, which had agreed to abide by spending limits, the
ads were funded with unregulated money from the Democratic National
Committee, which raked in about $1.5 million a week to air them wherever
they'd have the most impact.
Dole and the Republican National Committee didn't know what hit them. By
the time they woke up, it was too late. The Clinton-Gore loophole not only
helped the administration win the 1996 election but thereafter established
"soft money" as a slush fund for negative political advertising. The
Republicans are now fully intent on exploiting the loophole this time around,
to the tune of at least $200 million if George W. Bush emerges as the likely
nominee. That's roughly twice what the Democratic National Committee can
possibly pull in. The only protection the Dems now have against the weapon
Clinton and Gore created in 1996 goes by the name of McCain, who has
sworn off soft money.
Some people say none of this really matters. This campaign is about
character, and the "new," feisty Gore is simply more appealing than the
rather impassive Bradley. Six months ago Gore was pedantic and wooden,
and his campaign was top-heavy with K Street lobbyists and corporate
public relations flacks. But, as the story goes, Gore had the courage to
change. He fired the flacks, moved his headquarters from Washington to
Nashville, and transformed himself into a hyperkinetic dynamo. By contrast,
although Bradley was hot several months ago, his stolidity got boring. He
didn't fight back hard enough against Gore's attacks, he lost the
expectations game in Iowa and New Hampshire, and now the mantle of
maverick reformer has shifted to McCain. And Bradley still won't, or can't,
remake himself into a winner.
So, by the new tautological logic of presidential "character," Bradley doesn't
have what it takes. He's toast unless a miracle happens: Gore slips on some
bit of dung left over from the 1996 election, McCain fizzles and independents
suddenly rediscover Bradley, or Bradley himself emerges from a telephone
booth as a new, supercharged Bill--so fierce and fiery, so snappy and witty,
so quick with mud slings, barbs, zingers, ripostes, and repartees that he
obliterates Gore in upcoming debates, dazzles the press, and gets his face
on the front of every newsweekly in the country. In this post-Clintonian
world, success is character, character is success, and makeovers create
comeback kids--if they have enough will to come back in any form that
The ability to make oneself over into a winning personality isn't the true test
of character, however, and it shouldn't be the criterion we use in deciding on
the next president of the United States. Character has to do with
consistency, truth-telling, fidelity to principle, and courage. These will be the
qualities Americans seek next Election Day. McCain's appeal is based on
them, and, were he to emerge as the Republican standard-bearer, the
Democrats would be hard-pressed. Which of the two Democratic candidates
best measures up? To my mind, Bill Bradley.