By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.’"
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 Ni√Īos 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.