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The Difference Between the Democrats 

Al is tight. Bill is loose. That’s it.

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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Photo by Michael PowersAl Gore and Bill Bradley — the entire Democratic presidential field — passed through town last week, officially kicking off the 2000 primary season. And I miss Bill Clinton already. And Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy . . .

What I miss, that is, is a normal Democratic primary — a primary where the Dems protest that’s there is too much inequality and insecurity in America, and actually propose to do something about it. For instance, that government address those needs — like universal health care or affordable housing — in which the market has absolutely no interest.

These are the kinds of things — I write this for the benefit of younger readers — that Democrats used to say. They said them as recently as the last Democratic presidential contest, the primary of 1992. In that year, the governor of Arkansas traveled the land calling for national health insurance. And that was just Bill Clinton, who was far from the leftmost Democrat running.

Fast-forward seven years to last Thursday night at the Beverly Hilton. The lanky, diffident speaker is explaining to his audience that the global economy gives nations no leeway as to the economic model they adopt: "Governments stand or fall based on their economic policy," he says, "judged daily by millions of investors who are looking for open markets, fiscal prudence, low taxes." The economic code word for the neoliberal model, he goes on, is "‘TINA’ — for, ‘There is no alternative.’"

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The speaker thus bidding adieu to New Deal economics is actually the lefter-half of this year’s field: Bill Bradley. To be fair, Bradley doesn’t say that this exclusion of alternatives is a good thing as such. During his three terms in the Senate (1978–96), in fact, there were times when he opposed the decimation of the New Deal (in ’96, he voted against welfare reform), and times when he developed post–New Deal but nonetheless effective poverty programs. (Bradley was the legislator chiefly responsible for establishing the Earned Income Tax Credit, a kind of negative income tax that boosts the income of the working poor.)

And yet, Bradley’s neolib credentials are unquestionable. To the dismay of the industrial unions, Bradley is even more gung ho on free trade than Gore is.

Indeed, the Bradley-Gore contest confirms the political triumph of Clintonism. Such liberal Democratic leaders as Gephardt, Jackson and Paul Wellstone opted not to enter the race, concluding there was no significant base left of the Clinton center on which to build a candidacy. And so Gore faces a challenge from a candidate whose ideo-logical profile is all but identical to his own. Compare the two candidates’ voting records in The Almanac of American Politics for the years in which they both served in the Senate, and you’ll find that Bradley had a record that was 75 percent liberal to Gore’s 74 percent.

Still, Bradley is running to Gore’s left — sort of, in a post–New Deal, TINA-kind of way. At times, he attacks the Clinton-Gore administration for failing to deal with a social inequity, while refraining from making any programmatic suggestion of his own. Last Wednesday, Bradley went down to the Para los Niños preschool just off Skid Row to blast the administration for not having reduced the number of children living in poverty even in the midst of the boom. But he omitted from his speech some specific remedies that appeared in the written text, such as raising the minimum wage.

Bradley criticizes the administration for its small ideas, and vows to unveil big ideas of his own — greatly increasing health coverage, for instance — this fall. For now, though, he dwells on the Other America of the poor and non-white, without quite saying what he’ll do about its many plights. His message, in this embryonic stage of his campaign, is that he’ll out-care Al Gore.

Bradley has delivered two speeches in which his caring has gone beyond abstractions. Addressing the Service Employees’ legislative and political conference in Washington last month, he called for greatly strengthening the penalties on employers who illegally thwart their workers’ efforts to form a union. And speaking in New York this April, Bradley almost approached vehemence — a subdued vehemence — as he talked about the racial-targeting practices of police departments. "Every black mother dreads the call from the police department in the middle of the night," he said — referring to the prospect of cops beating black teens without provocation. This is Bradley at his best, though it’s not clear what he’d do about all this as president. The White House may be our foremost bully pulpit, but the phlegmatic Bradley is nobody’s idea of a preacher.

Indeed, with the ideological and programmatic differences between himself and Gore hard to pin down, Bradley has determined to make his mark stylistically, though that may trivialize what he’s about. He is running as the Un-Candidate — everything that Gore is not and cannot become. On the stump, Gore is all programmatic specifics, while Bradley is thoughtful (though never brilliant) generalizations. Gore carries the baggage of the fund-raising excesses of the ’96 Clinton-Gore campaign; Bradley, who quit the Senate in ’96 with a blast at the whole culture of money in politics, advocates campaign finance reform at every opportunity. (It’s his one specific.) Gore is running the classic insider race, lining up endorsements, surrounding himself at every stop with half the pols in town. Bradley has few if any political endorsements, but he more than made do last week with Phil Jackson and John Wooden by his side.

Above all, Bradley is careful to cultivate a low-key looseness and rhetorical flatness that serves to position him as the Anti-Gore. Most of his events are billed as "listening" sessions: The candidate meets with and hears out "real people" who represent some cause that matters to him — home health-care workers in Sacramento; women athletes helped by civil rights legislation in Santa Monica. When it comes time for the candidate himself to talk, he doesn’t even attempt to move his listeners. Indeed, his speeches sound as if he’s methodically crossed out every one of his speechwriters’ applause lines. From Adlai Stevenson through Paul Tsongas, the Democrats have had their share of candidates whose appeal was their (politically savvy) rejection of the political style. Bradley extends this tradition into new realms of uninflected speech. Whether this will build him a cult following or just put listeners to sleep remains to be seen.

Gore, who became a career pol in utero, certainly offers a contrasting style — not more folksy than Bradley, but painfully more formal. Gore blew into L.A. last Friday for a "town meeting" on school safety with Fairfax High students, but even in this improvisational format, the veep came off as a guy so scripted he probably sleeps by cue cards. ("Roll over on left side. Snore, quietly, for 12 minutes. Return to tummy.")

Gore’s a better speaker than he used to be, but a faintly exaggerated, robotic quality still attends his every move. "I want to share a dialogue about YOU," he tells the students, nodding — actually, tilting — at them. "It’s a pleasure to be HERE [his finger points downward at the podium] at Fairfax High." Later, when a student recounts an accidental shooting on campus six years ago that killed a family friend, the veep acknowledges his own "HEARTFELT pain" at the story by placing his hand on his heart. Gore comes close to being his own interpreter to the deaf.

Nor is Gore a speaker for this Oprah-fied age. His instinct is to channel the personal back into the safely political. One student, Cookie Miller, tells him she’s known some troubles, but now she’s managed to get back into school and do fairly well. Gore asks if her faith helped her; she answers that she had faith in herself. But the veep’s working on a theme here, and will not be deterred: Faith is important, he avers. "I have proposed that the government work with faith-based institutions on problems like domestic violence and welfare-to-work," he tells Cookie. Whether Cookie or any of her fellow students understand that "faith-based institution" is current Beltwayese for "church" or "synagogue" is doubtful. Gore may sign his English, but he doesn’t translate his argot.

The Grand Master of the Town Meeting format, Gore’s boss, would never have responded that way. Clinton would have talked to Cookie on her own terms, then segued gently into whatever political point he wanted to make. But Clinton is campaigning only for history’s blessing this year. In his stead, we have Bradley, who listens, nods, and speaks no policy at all, and Gore, who speaks nothing but policy (and signs it, too).

And that, friends, is the main difference between the two Democratic candidates — that and the fact that Gore’s polling is making a great many Democrats very nervous — in this first campaign of the millennium, where the Third Way is the only way and the candidates not only abide by but demonstrate the rule of TINA: There is no alternative.

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