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Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure 

How Bill Bradley Learned to be a Principled Liberal, but not how to Campaign, and how Al Gore Learned to be a Terrific Campaigner, while Trashing his Party's Historic Principles.

Wednesday, Jan 26 2000
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Bradley, Corbis; Gore, Michael PowersI. MUTATIONS

 

AT THE OUTSET, THEY SEEMED AN AWFUL LOT ALIKE. AL GORE AND BILL BRADLEY weren't exactly the yin and yang of the Democratic Party. They were more the yin and yin, or, at most, yin A and yin B. A couple of socially liberal, economically centrist free traders. Both a little socially stunted, too, judging by their meager podium skills. Both among the brightest members of the Senate, by the common consent of their colleagues. Both among the more aloof members of the Senate, too, according to the same colleagues. Each wrapped up in somewhat esoteric issues -- Gore in global warming, computer technology, arms control; Bradley in Third World debt, the Russian economy, federal water pricing, the tax code -- that didn't necessarily mean very much to their constituents. Two tall centrists, and while it was impossible to say who was the more centrist, Bradley was clearly the taller, and like many very tall men, the more stooped: a Rhodes-scholar mind plunked atop a Goofyesque body.

By the historic standards of the Democratic Party, the two of them didn't add up to much of a field. Besides the charisma deficit, there was an even more depressing absence of political space between them. An Associated Press survey of their years in the Senate revealed that the two had voted the same way 79 percent of the time. The AFL-CIO's scorecard during the years when they were both senators (1985­1992) gave Gore an 88 percent rating to Bradley's 86. And on the one issue with the clear potential to divide the party -- free trade -- they both stood on the same side. Though millions of rank-and-file Democrats and hundreds of Democratic congressmen have grown skeptical of free trade, Gore and Bradley still tout the benefits of NAFTA, and support China's admission to the World Trade Organization.

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If there was one possible Democratic entrant into the fray who gave Gore sleepless nights, it wasn't Bradley, but House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt. An opponent of both NAFTA and welfare reform, Gephardt could have mobilized the liberals, labor and much of the party base against the veep. When Gephardt elected last summer to remain in the House, the Gore people relaxed. The Bradley bid, as they saw it, had no such potential. It wasn't really about anything, other than political reform, which was hardly a sufficient basis for a successful candidacy.

HALF A YEAR LATER, THOUGH, AND IN EXCESS OF (OR AGAINST) ALL EXPECTATION, the 2000 Democratic primary contest has become very much about something -- indeed, has clarified and shaped a conflict between opposing tendencies within the party, much as the Mondale-Hart battle did in 1984. Bill Bradley has become something he never was during his 18 years in the Senate -- a leader, surprisingly, of an even more surprisingly renascent liberalism. Al Gore, even while proposing many new programs of his own, has reacted to Bradley's move leftward by turning himself into a critic of the very notion that government can or should undertake major new initiatives. Gore has taken Bill Clinton's counter to the Republicans' tax-cut lunacy -- setting aside the surplus for Social Security and debt reduction -- and converted it into a cudgel against Bradley's proposal for universal health insurance and, by extension, against any considerable new governmental endeavor. Gore the Green has been succeeded by Gore the Green-Eyeshade.

But the primary transformation has been Bradley's. Early in the campaign, asked to name leaders he most admired, he volunteered the names of two unlikely presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter: pillars of rectitude who shared Bradley's disdain for the squalidness of politics -- at the price of failing to build political majorities for some of their most treasured goals. Today, the president he invokes again and again is a more conventional Democratic hero, Franklin Roosevelt -- for the simple reason that, like Roosevelt, he is proposing that government undertake some major business. The Process Guy has become -- or rather, been augmented by -- the Program Guy.

The issue driving this rather abrupt rift between Al and Bill is the new, and fundamental, question confronting American public policy: What shall we do with our surplus? The Republicans have staked out the first position: convert it to tax cuts, though the public's clamor for tax cuts has subsided to a murmur, and the theoretical rationale for them -- that they will free up more capital for the wealthy to invest -- seems stunningly superfluous in the current economy. Bradley has staked out a second position: Spend the surplus, in this time of abundance, on programs that mitigate the raging inequalities of the new economy by subsidizing nearly universal health insurance and increasing tax credits to the poor. The third way is Gore's: Direct the surplus to neither vast tax cuts nor major new endeavors, but spend a little more here, shore up some programs there and, most emphatically, pay down the debt.

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