Comment: Is Bradley for Real?

We've gotten our hearts broken before. Clinton, many of us hoped, was really a closet progressive who somehow also attracted moderates. His fellow southern governor, Jimmy Carter, looked to be a fine reformer for the post-Watergate era. But both presidents left legacies more conservative than liberal. Both were anti-party men. Both failed to use their high office to enhance credibility in government, the Democratic Party, or the liberal cause.

Now comes the moderately liberal former senator from New Jersey, seeming to outflank Al Gore on both ends. Bradley is rather to Gore's left with his calls to end child poverty and extend health coverage. Yet Bradley also has great appeal to independents and even to Republicans. Is this Clinton all over again, a politician who is all things to all people? Or something more hopeful? Is Bill Bradley for real?

A bit warily, I think he is. Following him around Massachusetts and New Hampshire in early November, I noticed several encouraging things about the man and his operation.

First, Bradley is now campaigning as an unabashed liberal on the issues—and New Hampshire is hardly prime liberal territory. His basic speech is a litany with which few readers of this magazine would find fault. His issues come from his gut, not from his pollsters. Child poverty is not a cause that animates most suburban swing voters. Gun control resonates with few New Hampshire independents. He goes further than he needs to on gay rights and on race.

Second, Bradley is taking the high road. As he speaks in New Hampshire town meetings, addresses rallies of his own canvassers, chats on streets of small towns, there is hardly a word about Al Gore. Indeed, when a fervent Bradley supporter suggested that Gore was something of a hypocrite on the environment, Bradley gallantly rose to the vice president's defense and almost chastised the questioner. Bradley speaks of his own vision for America, not of Gore's ample weaknesses. The occasional explicit challenge to Gore, as in Bradley's address to the public health meetings in Chicago, is about genuine differences on the issues; it is not "negative campaigning."

Third, Bradley's campaign staff compares favorably with the vice president's. Though Bradley's people are far from amateurs, few are in this race to advance their value as lobbyists. Several were preparing to work for Paul Wellstone. There is little of the sniping or infighting endemic to the Gore operation. And Bradley is beginning to bring back to politics the idealists who've spent the past several years in a state of disgust.

At a $500-minimum fundraiser in Manchester, I asked John Rauh, a leading New Hampshire liberal and co-host of the event, to characterize the 260 people attending. "A great many newcomers to politics," he replied. "That's a good sign." And it is. New Hampshire's registered independents can choose on primary day to vote either Democratic or Republican. Between them, McCain and Bradley have the support of about 80 percent of the state's independents, so in a real sense Bradley is competing as much with McCain as with Gore.

Bradley is gradually gaining confidence as a campaigner, cracking gentle ad lib jokes, warming to his audiences as they warm to him, sounding like a winner. Like Gore, Bradley has been getting some coaching; unlike Gore, he has integrated it seamlessly. Both Gore and Bradley are said to be boring. But there is boring and there is boring. Bradley is low-key; Gore is stiff. Bradley is relaxed; Gore is tense. Bradley is almost too comfortable with himself; Gore is painfully and chronically uncomfortable. The vice president almost never quite gets it right. When he tries to sound high-minded, he comes across as unctuous. When he goes on the offensive, he seems aggressive. When he tries to emulate Clinton and asks people about their lives, or keeps insisting how passionate he is, you can almost see the focus groups and rehearsals.

Bradley is certainly reserved for a politician—he has the low blood pressure of an athlete. As I watched him address a town meeting in Laconia, the thought occurred that the venue was well named. Bradley may be too laconic, but he is a natural. As he gave variations on the same essential speech several times, he never sounded scripted. Bradley is now slightly ahead of Gore in New Hampshire. At this writing, the Gore-Bradley numbers have stabilized, but Bradley's big door-to-door canvass the weekend of November 6–7 has not yet registered, and it was a large August canvass that produced Bradley's last large jump. Usefully, he's still the national underdog.

On a sparkling November Saturday in Manchester, waiting for the candidate to give them an early morning send-off for a weekend of canvassing, about a thousand Bradley volunteers milled around in a large parking lot outside the furniture warehouse that is Bradley's New Hampshire headquarters. I spotted John McDonough, a former state rep who was the most left-wing member of the Massachusetts House. Why Bradley? "First, health care," said McDonough. "Gore is saying we can't do much. Bradley is saying we have to do something dramatic, and he is connecting with something that's moving in the electorate. Second, I really want to win."

As if to underscore the point, a former history teacher at Salem State College named Bill Thompson told me, "This is the first Democratic Party event I've ever attended. If you quote me, you're going to shock a lot of kids who I converted to conservatism over the years." Why was Thompson for Bradley? "He's a breath of fresh air. He's absolutely clean. He believes in hard work and discipline. I guess I don't really mind his liberal stand on the issues."

"People vote for a president for different reasons," Bradley told me. "Some because they like the policy positions, some because they like and trust the person. What ends up on the president's desk is often something that cannot be known in advance. People will vote for a president because they sense that he will make good decisions. I hear a lot of people say, 'I don't agree with you on that, but I respect you.'"

Reagan had that capacity, and so did Roosevelt. People who didn't agree with Reagan's convictions liked his conviction. Reagan drove his pollsters crazy because he didn't mind taking an unpopular stand and using the power of his personality and his office to move public opinion.

Watching Bradley at Nativity Prep, a small inner-city school on the fringes of Roxbury in Boston, it occurred to me that Bradley is a kind of liberal Bill Bennett, but without the sanctimony. His 1998 values-cum-basketball book Values of the Game compares favorably with Bennett's Book of Virtues. (Bradley's chapter headings: Passion, Discipline, Selflessness, Respect, Perspective, Courage, Leadership, Responsibility, Resilience, Imagination.) In essence, Bradley appeals to moderates and even conservatives on character and values, and to liberals on character and issues.

Nativity Prep is a Jesuit-founded middle school, now essentially non denominational but still imbued with Jesuit values. The kids report to school at 7:30 a.m. for chores, end the school day at 3:15 p.m. for almost two hours of sports until 5:00 p.m., and come back at 7:00 p.m. for supervised study. Speaking at an all-school assembly, Bradley began with his oft-repeated story of practicing basketball shots three hours a day because he never wanted to lose to someone who had practiced harder than he had. "Then I'd go home and study. You can do both of those things. Why work so hard? Those who love you are watching you, and they expect great things of you."

Unlike Clinton, who tried to square the ideological circle by waffling on issues, Bradley frankly espouses liberal programmatic ideas in service of rather traditional values (that most liberals in fact embrace). Kids need to respect authority and do their homework—and it helps if their parents don't have to work three jobs; it helps if there are good schools and quality day care. Gore is not all that different, but Bradley just does it better. Though Gore's personal life is also irreproachable, it is hard to imagine Republicans and independents being drawn to Gore on the character issue.

In the general election, Bradley would represent a cleaner break with the Clinton era and its scandals. His NBA past is an immense, and still underrated, political asset. There is of course the sheer value of sports celebrity, the endorsements of NBA greats, and the instant credibility on race, but that is only the beginning. Bradley, like Carter and Clinton, can be almost too focused on the minutiae of policy questions. But by definition, nobody who starred for the Knicks is a policy wonk. No 6'5" small forward needs to prove he's an alpha male. Bradley comes across as a man of high character and integrity, and his basketball career is at the center of a life story that certifies his authenticity. When Bradley tells a fifth grader at Nativity Prep about the importance of discipline, anyone even casually acquainted with his NBA career knows this is something Bradley has lived, not just preached.

What prevents this column from being a love letter, however, are the following qualifications:

First, Bradley was less than a great senator. In 18 years, he had just two major legislative accomplishments: the 1986 tax reform and a complete revision of the pricing system for subsidized federal water, which had been stimulating agricultural uses that were inefficient and unsustainable. Long before globalism was in vogue, he was also the best-informed senator on inter national economic issues and worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations on trade policy, third world debt relief, and exchange-rate coordination. But that's essentially it. Bradley boned up on issues of interest to him, often highly important ones such as the international monetary system, but without delivering much legislation. He was superb at moving without the ball, not always so good at moving to the hoop.

Bradley had a very impressive and well-respected Senate staff, second only to Ted Kennedy's. None went away mad; he inspired enormous loyalty and affection. But unlike Kennedy, Bradley was not a master political craftsman; at times, he seemed almost bored.

Relatedly, Bradley is not much of a party man. His retirement speech strove for high-mindedness but piously declared a plague on both your houses. In the single most appalling passage, Bradley declared, "The political debate has settled into two familiar ruts. The Republicans are infatuated with the 'magic' of the private sector 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."

This was in August 1995. For nearly 20 years, ever since Jimmy Carter and certainly since Bill Clinton, Democratic neo-liberal administrations had been privatizing, deregulating, and embracing the market and disparaging bureaucracy. Bradley in effect criticized this from the right. What could he have been thinking? August 1995 was also the high point of Bill Clinton's triangulation—placing the presidency above both parties. If anything, Bradley's farewell speech out-triangulated Clinton. There was plenty else to criticize the Democrats for, especially their dependence on the money culture, which Bradley also did. But in 1995, what good Democratic liberals needed most was a critique of Clinton as opportunist and crypto-Republican, not a trashing of "Democrats" in general as too statist.

The past two Democratic presidents were rather contemptuous of Democrats in Congress, and the latter returned the favor. It would be a pity to continue that tradition. Milton Rakove's classic book on Chicago politics was titled We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent, quoting a Daley machine aphorism about the menace of outsiders. Al Gore is somebody that somebody sent, in this case the party machinery and the AFL-CIO. As president, Gore would be more accountable to party constituencies. With a closely divided Congress, the next Democratic president will need to be an astute tactician. Gore would be better at working the legislative machinery, but Bradley might be better at rousing public opinion. Each man needs something of the other's skills.

The way that Bradley left the Senate melds with an oft-heard criticism that Bradley is contemptuous of lesser intellects. His Scotch-Irish diffidence can sometimes seem aloof, even disdainful. He is much better in person than on television—but unfortunately most voters will experience the campaign only on TV.

Bradley is well liked on Wall Street, perhaps too well liked. This derives from his years on the Senate Finance Committee, his sophisticated understanding of the global economy, and more than a bit of jock-sniffing. One liberal money man says, "The Ivies on Wall Street look at Bradley and say to themselves, 'This is who should be running the world.'" A recent set of talking points e-mailed to Bradley supporters crows: "Executives at Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Salomon Smith Barney gave more than three times as much money to former senator Bill Bradley . . . [as] they did to Vice President Al Gore, new figures show." Would that this were a pre-emptive strike anticipating bad press. But it was a frank boast. When Bradley left the Senate, he signed on as a consultant for J.P. Morgan and Morgan Guaranty Trust, earning well into six figures.

Bradley's views on trade are conventional. He would take care of those displaced by trade, he told me, by education, training, and wage supplement programs. He doesn't seem to appreciate that globalism itself undermines politically the state's capacity to finance such programs and to regulate commerce in the public interest. He is working on a major address on trade and social standards to be delivered in December, which will reposition his own stance closer to Gore's. But neither man's stance is adequate to the problem.

Elsewhere in this issue of the Prospect, Joshua Micah Marshall describes the housecleaning of the bureaucratized Gore campaign by Tony Coelho. While this may have lightened the Gore machine—"streamlined" is the word of choice in Nashville—Gore essentially exchanged one set of fixers for another. Several of Gore's senior people work in politics partly to cross-fertilize deals with private clients. Christopher Edley, Jr., Harvard Law professor and senior Clinton-Gore policy adviser, is paid handsomely as counsel to the asbestos industry, which is trying to minimize the costs of final settlement of health litigation. This isn't an illicit conflict of interest, but it should raise eyebrows. And Edley is one of the more savory of Gore's top people.

In another provocative article herein, Jonathan Chait describes the paradoxically liberal effects of Clinton's fiscal conservatism: Thanks to budget surpluses, the Fed is letting the economy reach full employment, low-income workers are finally getting real raises, Medicare and Social Security are saved, and it is possible to talk about public spending again. But who is talking about what kind of public spending? Clinton went overboard in pledging to retire the national debt, and Gore seems more wedded to that brand of fiscal caution. When Bradley proposed an expansive new health insurance program, Gore lambasted him for suggesting spending that the country couldn't afford. This posture continues the more Republican face of the Clinton administration. It perpetuates the idea of budget surplus as sacred icon. The sooner we break that tradition, the sooner we can repair the public business. So who among the Democrats is selected to build on the Clinton legacy is crucial, and this is among the most important differences between Bradley and Gore.

Despite his liabilities, Bradley could well turn out to be the more electable Democratic contender as well as the more liberal one. Moreover, he could restore some credibility and idealism to politics and government.

In 1992 a lot of young people rallied to Clinton and a lot of Democrats thought, along with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that the pendulum was at last swinging back toward public purpose. That hope was dashed, first in the politics of triangulation and then by the Lewinsky scandal—or maybe just deferred. You see a lot of young volunteers on the trail with Bradley who seem genuinely impressed with the man, his integrity, and his call for service.

So let's appreciate Bradley, but without illusions. At this point in the race, he is essentially a Bob Rubin liberal moving carefully leftward. Potentially, he could attract a lot of independents without giving away core liberal issues. But he still needs to show progressives that his understanding of globalism goes beyond Wall Street's, that he'd seriously challenge recent fiscal assumptions, and that he would not disdain his allies in Congress.

Bradley's surprising rise has made this a much more interesting race as well as a more liberal one. The burden is now on Gore to show that he would be a more effective, or more liberal, nominee. All of this can only be good for the 2000 campaign.

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