By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
IV. ACTUAL EXISTING CANDIDATES
TO DATE, THE ONLY EVENT OF CAMPAIGN 2000 AT WHICH Al Gore and Bill Bradley have both appeared, albeit on separate days, was the AFL-CIO's winter meeting in Miami Beach last month. And it was during this meeting that one of my reporter colleagues started referring to the dynamic duo as "dull and duller."
Gore isn't quite the stiff of yore. He's been taking speech lessons; he goes guttural in his perorations; he can rouse a crowd if not wow it. Bradley is one of those speakers whose ability to keep his audience awake is dangerously dependent on some loud noise emanating from elsewhere. (In Miami, he provided excitement by bringing along onetime Knicks teammate and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.) Bradley's rhetorical flatness does convey a kind of honesty and lack of presumption; it is almost, but not quite, endearing.
In Bradley's defense, he was one of the Senate's more cogent thinkers during his term there (19781996); I do not mean by that to damn with faint praise. But he has entered the presidential race with almost nothing to say. "I would run," he said when announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, "to unleash the enormous potential of the American people."
And that's it. No hard edges, no soft edges, no positions. Later this year, he vows, he'll release six to eight detailed positions. But in private meetings, off the record, he intimates more. He will run, he suggests, to Gore's left -- calling for a major initiative on national health, a reduction in child poverty, an improvement in race relations. He derides the administration for setting up demonstration programs when real, nationwide programs are required. This comes close to the liberals' critique of Clintonism, and Bradley has some bona fides here. He voted, during his final year in the Senate, against the Republican welfare-reform bill that Clinton signed. He was a longtime critic of campaign-finance practices, and left Washington with what, by Bradley standards, was a blast at the whole corrupt process. If Bill Bradley showed up at a Buddhist temple, it would be to learn how to spin prayer wheels.
For all that, though, Bill Bradley is nobody's liberal. In the Senate, he was identified with the cause of free trade, and with the 1986 tax-reform bill, which cleaned up the tax code (always a good thing) in part by making it considerably less progressive (not such a good thing). When his voting record, as measured by The Almanac of American Politics, is compared to Gore's during the years they both served in the Senate, they are almost identical: Bradley took the liberal position on 75 percent of key votes, Gore on 74 percent. Then again, Bradley's New Jersey was a state that would indulge more liberal votes from its senator on cultural issues than Gore's Tennessee. On economic issues, Gore was actually the more liberal -- voting leftward 78 percent of the time compared to Bradley's 74 percent.
What's alarming is that Gore's articulation of his core ideas, the raison d'être for his candidacy, is scarcely more developed than Bradley's. A few months back, the vice president delivered the Big Speech intended to be the overture for his campaign, the first sounding of the great themes. "The great idea of our time is the fact of our mutuality," he declared, "our connection to one another. The old ways that didn't work saw only separate, competing entities . . . In this 'us-versus-them' thinking of the recent past, a vision of the common good struggled mightily -- often futilely -- to transcend the whole. But transcend we must . . . Today, I challenge America to â raise that banner with a new practical idealism for the 21st century."
The level of abstraction here suggests a translation from the German, but the politics are pure New Democrat: no opposed class interests, no bad guys of the kind that pop up in populist tirades, but mutuality, connection, transcendence.
Precisely because of his weakness for New Democrat vaporizing, and his commitment to free trade, however, Gore has spent the past six years working furiously to cultivate labor. And in so doing, he has made himself into the champion of one of the fundamental tenets of the New Liberalism: making organizing easier.
For six years, Gore had been anticipating a Democratic primary contest against Dick Gephardt -- Fair Trade Not Free Trade Gephardt, clearly the logical candidate for labor to back. From the first days of his veephood, Gore began cultivating union leaders individually: What do you think of this bill? this program? Can you and Madge go to the Kennedy Center next Tuesday with me and Tipper? Then he began attending AFL-CIO executive councils, and conventions of all the major individual unions, unveiling some goodie at each appearance -- a change in OSHA standards, a vow to veto GOP legislation allowing the hiring of replacement workers for strikers. But it was only when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO, and the movement placed new emphasis on the organizing, that Gore found his magic carpet.
For years, labor had been complaining about the obstacles that more often than not thwarted workers in their campaigns to organize unions. Corporations would call in union-busting consultants, would threaten workers with closing the plant, would actually fire one in 20 workers involved in an organizing campaign. Most if not all of this was illegal, but the sanctions levied against employers by the National Labor Relations Act were so weak that companies broke the law with impunity. When Sweeney came in, the AFL-CIO began holding community hearings featuring workers who'd been fired, or whose union had won the recognition election but whose employer had refused to bargain with it.