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.
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.
In a sense, the Bradley-Gore debate re-creates the division that defined the first few months of the Clinton presidency, when thenLabor Secretary Robert Reich argued (unsuccessfully) for increasing public investment (in schools, transportation and the like) in the administration's first budget, while thenEconomic Council Chair Robert Rubin argued (successfully) for reducing the deficit. The deficit is gone now, but Gore, claiming Rubin as his senior economic adviser, argues that the time is still not right for increased public investment. Which Bradley (whom Reich has endorsed) counters with Hillel's great third question: If not now, when? With surpluses projected beyond the horizon, this should be the moment that Democrats propose to do the things they believe in.
The division here is more fundamental than mere campaign positioning, though it is certainly that, too. Increasingly, it also divides the only major state government entirely in Democratic hands. In Sacramento, the Legislature's liberal leaders are pushing for ambitious new programs, while Governor Gray Davis resolutely refuses to endorse major increases in spending on schools or roads or anything else. (Last spring, when Gore seemed to be cakewalking toward the nomination, virtually the entire Democratic legislative delegation endorsed him -- an irony that's not lost today on many liberal legislators. "Bradley sounds awfully good sometimes," said one, wistfully, earlier this month.)
While Bradley has driven the Democratic debate, he hasn't been the more adept debater. Gore has attacked his proposals from the right and the left, has raised objections both real and nonsensical -- but often, to considerable effect. It was during the spate of December debates that Bradley's momentum ground to a halt. On Monday, Bradley's inability to fend off Gore's counterpunches became abundantly clear: Gore clobbered Bradley, 63 percent to 35 percent, in the Iowa caucuses. The caucus process tends to reward organization, which Gore had aplenty, and it is a reflection on Bradley's shaky grasp of strategy that he invested so much effort in a state that was never likely to treat him that well. Bradley spent 63 days in Iowa to Gore's 38, and outspent Gore on his advertising buy.
Gore now goes to New Hampshire with a big bounce, and a small lead in the polling there which until recently had shown Bradley ahead. New Hampshire should be Bradley territory: Democrats and independents here are disproportionately upper-bracket social liberals, and labor is weak. If Bradley can't come out of New Hampshire with a victory, his prospects in the next ã round of voting -- the mega-primaries of March 7 in California, New York and 12 other states -- will be grim.
Whatever the fate of his candidacy, though, Bradley has already altered the political climate for the better. For nearly two decades, the Reagan deficit stood athwart any attempt by Democrats to use government as Roosevelt, if not God Himself, had intended it: as the great social stabilizer, the one device capable of reducing the market's savage inequalities. The deficit dwindled to naught last year, but the paralysis of deficit-era politics remained stubbornly in place. It took many months before a few courageous congressional liberals had the temerity to suggest that paying down the debt wasn't the highest purpose of government, that government could actually be put to positive uses again. Bill Bradley has now fleshed out that argument more fully and plausibly than anyone else -- though his characteristic disdain for the give-and-take of politics has diminished his impact. Still, he has helped turn the attention of his party and, to a surprising extent, his nation, to the condition of the poor, to the outrage of poverty in the midst of immense prosperity. That's a considerable achievement for any candidate. For Bill Bradley, it's breathtaking.
II. UP FROM ADLAI
BILL BRADLEY SERVED IN THE U.S. SENATE FOR 18 years, and he was nobody's idea of a liberal. His single greatest achievement was the 1986 tax reform, which eliminated a number of loopholes that corporations and the rich routinely used, but at the price of greatly reducing the overall tax rate on the rich.
He was seldom a go-to guy for groups promoting liberal causes: While he plainly shared many of their beliefs, he didn't lead any fights on their behalf. Virtually alone among his colleagues, he studied and decried the burdens of debt that Western financial institutions had inflicted on Third World nations -- but he undertook no initiatives for debt forgiveness. He spent a good deal of time, and his own resources, helping some of America's most powerless citizens, the Sioux of the Pine Ridge reservation, and when the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted, he went to the Senate floor and, in the course of his speech, whacked his desk with a pencil 56 times -- one whack for every blow that King had received from the officers. But no legislation on police practices or Native American rights or poverty remediation emerged from Bradley's office.
He was generally a good vote when such issues came to the floor -- most notably in 1996, when he opposed welfare reform for fear that it snatched away the safety net and left nothing in its place. Quietly and effectively, he worked to expand incrementally the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which supplements the income of the working poor. He shared liberals' preference for nonmilitary solutions to international crises, voting against the 1991 authorization for the war on Iraq. But there was also a consistent smattering of conservative votes in his record -- his 1986 vote to support aid to the contras, his 1981 support for the Reagan budget (but not for Reagan's tax cuts), his repeated votes for school-voucher programs (an idea he's since repudiated). And more than any other member of the Senate, he was Wall Street's fair-haired boy -- a zealous proponent of free trade who also expressed the noblesse oblige of the Street's more enlightened investment bankers, a "Bob Rubin liberal," in commentator Robert Kuttner's words.
Bradley argues that, when he had to, he was as able as anyone to cut the deals that turn bills into law -- working, for instance, alongside Chicago's Dan Rostenkowski to assure the passage of tax reform. But his disdain for politics has always been palpable. Certainly, the Democratic minimachines of New Jersey, famously venal and parochial, didn't provide Bradley with a very edifying introduction to campaigns and elections, and he stayed largely aloof from the world of Jersey Democratic politics. By 1996, when he left the Senate with a blast at both parties and the whole process of financing campaigns, he was conferring with some other notable Disdainers -- Paul Tsongas, John Anderson, Lowell Weicker -- about mounting an independent challenge to Clinton and Dole, attacking both parties for their subservience to big money and positioning himself as a programmatic centrist somewhere between them.
Bradley opted not to run in '96, but when he began his challenge to Gore last year, it seemed likely that that was the kind of campaign he'd wage, though from within the Democratic Party. The role of the anti-political Democrat presidential aspirant is by now a venerable one. It was first tried out by Adlai Stevenson, who managed to become the darling of '50s liberals without actually having waged particularly liberal campaigns. The appeal of Stevenson to intellectuals and the newly expanded urban professional class, critic Irving Howe wrote in 1954, was that "he so vividly symbolized their mixed feelings towards politics itself." Stevenson, wrote Howe, was "admired and identified with, above all, because he didn't seem really to like politics." The tradition was renewed in 1968 by the anti-war candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, who inherited both Stevenson's eloquence and his visible dislike for campaigning. (Asked one morning in midcampaign how her candidate-father was doing, McCarthy's daughter answered, "Alienated as usual.") In various permutations and combinations, the alienation gene was then passed down through John Anderson and Paul Tsongas, and Bradley was plainly primed to become its next host.
The original raison d'être for Bradley's campaign, then, was campaign-finance reform. While not explicitly condemning the Clinton-Gore fund-raising follies of 1996 (he wouldn't stoop so low), Bradley proclaimed that money was corrupting the entire political process, and called for a ban on the soft-money contributions to the party committees, for public financing of congressional campaigns, including primaries, and for whatever legislation or constitutional amendment was required to overturn Buckley vs. Valeo, the Supreme Court decision that renders more extensive reform all but impossible. Most Democrats favor some of these reforms, but Bradley's initial emphasis on such matters clearly marked him as a process, rather than a program, Democrat.
As personifications of purity, process Democrats often take liberal, politically risky stances on a range of social, noneconomic issues. (Tsongas, for instance, was an avid supporter of gay rights -- and of entitlement cutbacks.) Bradley, if anything, has exceeded the norm for social liberalism. On gun control, he's moved beyond Gore, calling for a ban on Saturday-night specials and the registration of all handgun owners. On gay rights, he's supported amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include gays and lesbians among those the act is designed to protect. On criminal-justice issues, he's taken some quite courageous stands, advocating a reduction in crack-cocaine sentences to the level of powder-cocaine sentences, demanding an end to racial profiling in police traffic stops, and supporting changes in the law that would give judges more discretion in the sentencing of nonviolent first-time drug offenders. In a nation that incarcerates an amazingly high percentage of its nonwhite young men, Bradley is demanding a colorblind justice system.
All very commendable, if unsurprising, for a process Democrat. But in the course of 1999, Bradley's candidacy turned into something quite different from the normal process-Democrat campaign. Two changes in the political landscape preceded this transformation. First, all of Gore's other potential challengers chose not to run, creating a gaping political space to Gore's left. Second, the emerging budget surplus created a philosophic and programmatic space to Gore's left, too. Suddenly, it was possible to approach the Democratic base with a Democratic program -- something no Democrat had done since the pre-Gingrich days of 1992, when Bill Clinton ran on the promise of universal health insurance.
And suddenly, Bill Bradley was preaching the old-time religion. To those who doubted the sincerity of his conversion, Bradley could, and did, contend that it wasn't a conversion at all, that he had always been concerned about the poor, and now the government was finally able to help remedy their plight. (Of course, there's been an element of opportunism in Bradley's move -- but it's been a long time since opportunism pushed a candidate to the left.) In a typical stump speech, this one to the students, faculty, parents and administrators at an Echo Park grade school late last year, Bradley argued that the current prosperity had imposed new obligations upon us -- or newly imposed old obligations. Decrying the fact that the number of children living in poverty had not declined during the Clinton presidency, citing the rise in the number of medically uninsured during that time to 44 million, he spoke quietly but with evident conviction on behalf of, in essence, a renewed war on poverty. "Now is the time, when the sun is shining, to fix our roof," he told his listeners. "It is a time when we can move our collective humanity a couple of feet forward."
BRADLEY'S INITIATIVE AGAINST CHILD POVERTY IS IN REALity an initiative against poverty per se. Like most Democrats, he calls for fully funding Headstart and for increasing the Earned Income Tax credits. Like most Democrats, and certainly like Al Gore, he supports strengthening labor laws to protect workers' right to organize. Like virtually every Democrat, he wants to raise the minimum wage, though like only the most liberal, he also wants to index the minimum wage to the median wage -- so that as average wages rise, the minimum wage will automatically follow along, subject no longer to congressional whim.
His signature initiative, of course, is his proposal for near-universal health care. His plan calls for creating federal subsidies to allow low-income Americans to buy into the existing array of health plans currently available ã to federal employees. All children in households with incomes up to twice the poverty level would be eligible for full subsidies, and those in households with incomes up to three times the poverty level could get partial subsidies. All adults in households with incomes below the poverty level could get full subsidies; in households up to twice that level, partial subsidies. Medicare recipients could get 75 percent of their prescription-drug purchases paid for by the government, after the first $500 each year. And for good measure, an additional $2 billion a year would go to community public-health programs.
In crafting his program, Bradley notes, he incorporated three lessons from the failure of the Clinton plan in 1994. First, by working within the existing system of private health insurance, he means to avoid the kind of fierce industry opposition that helped kill the Clinton effort. Second, by imposing no mandate on employers, he avoids the kind of fierce small-business opposition that was the other factor in killing the Clinton plan. Third, by proposing his specific plan during the campaign, as Clinton did not, he can claim more of a mandate than Clinton could in '94.
The price of specifics, though, is that it gives your opposition an opening to attack. The Gore campaign, and some independent observers, have complained that the plan is at once too costly and still insufficient. Critics argue that the $1,800 allotted for a full adult subsidy won't buy a year's coverage on the federal plans. (Bradley pro- jects a drop in the plans' cost as their membership swells.) The plan's total price, they say, will exceed the $65 billion a year Bradley projects. Gore argues that even if the plan sticks to Bradley's figures, it's still too costly.
To Bradley, this is crackpot realism. The Clinton plan -- which, needless to say, Gore supported -- was a good deal more costly than his, and proposed when the federal government was running a $290 billion annual deficit. Gore's new plan, by contrast, reads like something crafted during a time of high budget deficits rather than at a time when they have been eliminated altogether. It costs a comparatively negligible $14 billion a year, and really amounts to nothing more than an incremental expansion of the current Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Under CHIP, states are now able to claim federal funds to pay for the health insurance of children in households making up to twice the poverty level -- provided the state wishes to match those funds with its own. States can set their own lower thresholds of eligibility, and many do. The problem with CHIP -- and with Gore's program, which raises the federal threshold to two and a half times the poverty rate -- is that it hasn't reduced the number of uninsured Americans. "If states are not under strong political pressure to cover their working poor, they're not going to do very much," says UCLA public-health professor E. Richard Brown, a health-insurance authority and advocate not associated with any campaign. "There will be no dramatic change in that situation under Gore's plan."
As to Bradley's plan, says Brown, "I'm very impressed. He's certainly gone a long stride past Gore, who is basically repackaging what the states are already doing. Bradley federalizes the coverage levels, which is good. His plan has its problems: I'd prefer that it let the states set up their own purchasing groups, and turning long-term care over to the states could be a fiscal time bomb. The long-term potential for federal costs rising raises fiscal questions, too, but as a question of health policy, if employers drop their own coverage of low-wage workers, I'm not unhappy. People will trade up for better coverage under the federal employee plans."
Trading up, in fact, is one of the most attractive aspects of the Bradley plan. Medicaid, like welfare, is a means-tested plan open to and crafted for poor people only, and as any rider of the L.A. bus system can attest, a system designed for poor people only is generally a pretty poor system. Bradley proposes "mainstreaming" the poor into programs open to the middle class -- reducing the inequities not just in coverage but in treatment as well.
Questions as to the total costs of Bradley's programs are very much in order, but Gore has gone well beyond those. He has railed that Bradley calls for an end to Medicaid while providing no effective alternative (and, speaking to African-Americans in Pasadena, claimed that Bradley's war on Medicaid was going to hit nonwhites especially hard). Gore's argument is doubly duplicitous -- first, because in supporting an end to welfare while providing no alternative safety net (a position Bradley opposed), Gore did exactly what he now falsely accuses Bradley of doing; second, because the Clinton plan also called for an end to Medicaid, as recipients would be mainstreamed into existing plans -- just as the Bradley plan now proposes.
Indeed, as columnist Matt Miller has pointed out, the Bradley plan is basically "a slightly cheaper version of the proposal offered by President George Bush in 1992" -- a proposal the Democrats dismissed at the time as insufficient, since it would have covered only 96 percent of the American public. Bush's plan, as Miller notes, was proposed in the face of record deficits. And yet Elaine Kamarck, Gore's senior policy adviser, has decried the Bradley plan as evidence of a "reckless spending mentality," though it's proposed in a time of considerable surpluses.
To be sure, Bradley, like all the presidential candidates in both parties, is assuming the basic validity of the economic projections pointing to a string of budget surpluses. But he isn't relying on those entirely, since two of his policy initiatives entail major savings. Unlike Gore, who favors increases in military spending totaling $127 billion over the next decade, Bradley supports holding Pentagon appropriations at their current level. "I don't see how we can make cuts, given the need to increase pay and benefits for a large number of people in the military," he told me last October. "But I think we can have a steady state in military spending." Bradley has also called for closing tax loopholes, especially for mining, oil and gas companies, a move that would net an additional $125 billion over the next decade.
A sizable irony in all this is that Gore is proposing big-ticket items of his own. He wants to spend nearly $11 billion a year to establish universal preschools for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and has set aside $374 billion over the next decade to shore up Medicare (not to mention the $127 billion in additional military spending). But he is also earmarking some of the surplus for debt retirement, and he consistently assails Bradley's health proposal as Exhibit A in his case against renewed -- make that "reckless" -- public investment.
III. GET WITH THE PROGRAM!
GORE IS NO STRANGER TO THE INVESTMENT-VS.-deficit-retirement debate. As Bob Woodward tells the tale in The Agenda, his account of Clinton's first year as president, Clinton himself was distinctly reluctant to abandon his campaign promises to boost public-sector spending on schools, roads and the like. In the end, his budget tilted decisively toward reducing the deficit, but even as the congressional vote loomed, Clinton was still privately complaining that it was a "Wall Street plan." With the vote just a couple of days off, he subjected Gore to his misgivings, then asked him what he could do. "You can get with the goddamn program!" Gore replied.
To a considerable extent, surely, Gore's attacks on Bradley's advocacy of new public programs is a matter of political positioning. Indeed, his attacks have been mutually contradictory. Within the space of a few days, Gore has attacked Bradley for aiming too high, and for shunning a necessary incrementalism ("I want to achieve universal coverage step by step," he's said), then turned around and blamed Bradley for saying government should concentrate on just a few big things (contrasting him to "leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, leaders who did not believe that America could only do one or two things").
But there is more to Gore's campaign than simple intellectual incoherence. Though his own policy initiatives may seem to contradict it, there is a program at the core of the Gore candidacy, or at least a record of prosperity that he, alone of all the candidates, can claim some attachment to, if not quite credit for. For if any action of the Clinton-Gore administration fostered that prosperity, it was the tax hike and deficit reduction of the '93 Clinton budget -- the goddamn program Gore fought for, and now takes credit for.
Now, however -- and without further incentive, save that it differentiates him all the more from Bradley, Bush and McCain -- Gore has gone a step further and become the advocate of debt retirement über alles. In an astonishing interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Gore called for keeping the budget in the black even during an economic downturn. Spending should be cut as the economy slows, he said, "just as a corporation has to cut expenses if revenues fall off . . . [A recession] should be viewed as an opportunity to push that change [eliminating governmental middle managers] further before any other options are considered."
This is a mind-boggling position, and not just for a Democrat. It runs counter to every lesson of the Great Depression, where governmental cutbacks only further reduced consumer buying power, deepening theã recession even more. "You're going to do that in a deep recession?" Bradley asked, upon hearing Gore's position. "That will only make things worse." Even John McCain was taken aback by Gore's stance. "One of the options to stimulate the economy is to make investments," he told the Journal, "and that may entail deficit spending."
On the whole, union economists and policy people have been studiously avoiding Gore's policy pronouncements, for fear that they'd come out privately favoring Bradley while their unions are supporting Gore. One such union brain-truster whom I forced to read Gore's fiscal meditations, though, was left sputtering. "I don't think there's been a recession in the past hundred years where liberals and centrists didn't see the proper role of government being to prop up demand to forestall a deeper downturn," he says. "Hoover did it before Roosevelt, before Keynes provided a theoretical rationale for it." (Hoover, one might note, did it over the opposition of his treasury secretary, banking scion Andrew Mellon, who thought the proper role of employers, both private and governmental, was to cut back both purchasing and employment to get through the bad times. Gore is on the verge of becoming an Andrew Mellon Democrat -- the first of the breed, though Gray Davis is breathing right down his neck.) To be sure, all these attacks that Gore and his fugelmen are waging against large-scale public investment are campaign-season overstatements. At the same time, though, they mark a further, and dangerous, shift to the right in fundamental Democratic ideology. (Which already, of course, has shifted well rightward: A new survey shows that the Clinton-Gore administration is the first of the post World War II era in which per capita federal spending has actually declined.)
This is not all there is to Gore, fortunately. Few political leaders have done so much to highlight the obscene ease with which employers can obstruct their workers' right to form unions, or have pledged so vociferously to strengthen those workers' rights. (Had Gephardt challenged the veep, Gore was counting upon his pro-unionization stance to keep labor from flocking to his rival.) His commitment to the rights of minorities and women, including the right to reproductive choice, is all you could ask of a mainstream social liberal. His concern for the environment is long-standing and demonstrable, though far from the epic tale of green heroics that his campaign likes to relate.
But his differences with Bradley are both clear and instructive. In the end, Bradley has come, however surprisingly, to stand for the idea that government can still create universal programs that counter the inequities, and iniquities, of a market economy. Gore, for his part, has made a timeless virtue of the budgetary discipline of the past seven years, taking a tactic devised to fend off Republican supply-side silliness and applying it to Democratic demand-side decency.
And there's one further, signal difference. Gore seems to be running the more successful campaign.
IV. THE STATE OF PLAY
IN TRANSFORMING HIMSELF FROM A Process Democrat to a Program Democrat, Bill Bradley was setting himself up to go where no Democrat had gone before. The core constituency for Process Democrats is upper-middle-class professionals. From Gene McCarthy to Paul Tsongas, Process Dems have always polled best among the most educated, highest-income Democrats, and Bradley's been no exception: Every national, Iowa, or New Hampshire poll has showed his strongest support coming from those sectors. (And from males, a bit of Bradley exceptionalism due almost entirely to his career in basketball.) In Monday's Iowa caucuses, exit polls showed In Monday's Iowa caucuses, entrance polls showed that Bradley prevailed only among voters who made over $75,000 a year. Bradley's actively cultivating this base in New Hampshire: On Tuesday, he began running ads there featuring Niki Tsongas, Paul Tsongas' widow, complaining about the lies in Al Gore's ads -- a theme dear to the Process Dems' hearts.
By converting himself midstream into an advocate of major new entitlements, Bradley positioned himself, potentially, to expand his base to include more of the core Democratic constituencies -- working-class voters and nonwhites in particular. Today, midway between Iowa and New Hampshire, that wager seems not to have paid off. The conversion doesn't seem to have hurt Bradley among high-income voters, but neither does it seem to have helped him appreciably with the Democrats' traditional base.
Then again, Bradley's prospects to pick up that base were always slim. Among core Democratic voters -- African-Americans above all, but also union-household members and Latinos -- support for the Clinton administration remains high, and Gore has always been the natural choice for these groups. Or, as California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante put it during one Michael Jackson radio show on which we were both guests, "Unless they're given a reason, they'll default to Gore."
But "giving them a reason" meant that Bradley had to create a campaign of sufficient emotional intensity to win himself a second and third look from voters whose minds were nearly made up for Gore at the outset. And here, the very cool that has stood him in good stead with a cer- tain class of voter has left other voters very cold. Alone among the candidates, Bradley has clung to his belief in a private sphere, keeping such matters as his religious faith and personal tastes largely to himself. In the hurly-burly of debate, he has countered some of Gore's wilder charges and forays not with indignant rebuttals but with ironic dismissals -- as when he responded to Gore proffering his hand to swear off all further advertising by saying, "Al, that's good. I like the hand." More generally, while Bradley's is the more compassionate message, he presents it with a consistent reserve, glumly refusing to counter Gore's charges, even as Gore, once he retooled himself for the Bradley challenge, has seemed almost chemically pumped up for the past six months.
In the contest for the party base, then, Bradley has had the superior arguments while Gore's retained the emotional affinities, the decades-old ties and the institutional allegiances. From Bradley's perspective, that doesn't make for much of a balance sheet: He can claim the support of the party's non-institutional social democrats -- Reich, Kuttner, academics Cornel West (an old Bradley buddy) and William Julius Wilson, whose combined political clout is roughly zilch -- while Gore has the support of the party's institutional social democrats, that is, the AFL-CIO, whose political clout is immense. Here, Bradley's zealous belief in free trade has been a killer: Even now, such trade-oriented unions as the Auto Workers and the Teamsters can't bring themselves to endorse Gore, who supported NAFTA, fast-track and the like. Had Bradley been able to provide these unions with the faintest excuse to support him, they would have given him considerable help in Iowa and other states. But Bradley -- who has raised more money from both Wall Street and Silicon Valley than any other presidential candidate of either party -- had no interest whatever in changing his spots. This Monday in Iowa, he paid the price for that as union voters flocked to the caucuses to support Gore.
Gore, meanwhile, has, after a period of drift, been avidly changing his spots, his clothes and the way he struts his stuff. The campaigns of incumbent vice presidents are by necessity the least adventurous of any presidential candidates': Nixon in '60, Humphrey in '68 and Bush in '88 were all candidates of continuity, and so is Gore. But an odd kind of somnolence had also fallen over the Gore campaign in the first half of last year: None of the big-name lobbyists and operators whom Gore had on staff seemed able to convey any sense of purpose to his candidacy whatever, and few brought any sense of urgency to the job of selling their boss. As Warren Harding, in the last days of his presidency, had complained to William Allen White that he had no one who could save him from his friends, so Gore was surrounded by high-dollar, seat-warming buddies of long standing and no discernible desire to do the hard scutwork of a presidential campaign.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Gore's solution was to hire one of the least savory figures in Democratic politics to serve as his hatchet man. In the '80s, Tony Coelho, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, transformed the party by finding new funding sources for its candidates: corporate and industry PACs that, with Coelho's encouragement, wrote fat checks to the Democrats and that, with Coelho's encouragement, expected fat favors in return. In the late '80s, Coelho resigned from Congress to avoid charges of ethical improprieties. But Coelho had one quality Gore was badly in need of -- ruthlessness -- and by late summer, the Coelho touch had begun to turn the campaign around.
In short order, the nonperforming friends were gone. Gore adopted a loos- er style, moved his headquarters to Nashville, shucked his ties, dropped his g's, and changed into earthen-colored clothes. More important, he began attacking Bradley from every direction possible: Bradley was too ambitious, he was threatening existing programs, endangering Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare; he was not proposing enough for kids or defending enough for seniors. Gore dredged up Bradley's questionable votes, and tried to taint some not-very-questionable ones. Coelho had assembled, as Bradley had not, an impressive array of attack technicians (consultants Carter Eskew and Robert Shrum most particularly), and as debate followed debate, those technicians took their toll.
There's some reason to doubt that Bradley's people ever thought they could really make very deep inroads within the Democrats' core constituencies: In various states, their campaigns have been concentrated in the more upscale urban or suburban precincts. But for Bradley to counter the weight of Gore's institutional support and entrenched national connections -- absent the assistance of any other candidates who could loosen Gore's hold on this constituency or that -- he needs to fairly flood the process with enthusiasts, with voters who aren't the usual suspects, with committed progressives and zealous kids. And while there are signs that just such a political awakening may be dawning, that concern over our widening inequalities is on the rise (and in Seattle, in the streets), Bradley has been largely unable to tap into it, to mobilize the hundreds of thousands of voters he needs to propel himself past Gore. His is the voice of egalitarianism in Campaign 2000 -- a voice missing from national politics for some time now -- but it is a halting voice, limited in its appeal by the elitist implications of his global economics, limited in its impact by his contemptuous dismissal of Gore's attacks. In Iowa, Bradley's true believers were swamped by Gore's -- and labor's -- organization. Bradley gets one more shot to connect with his potential base: next Tuesday in New Hampshire. If he wins, he buys himself a month, and some momentum, to reach an audience he has not yet discovered how to move his way. If he loses, this may be a very short primary indeed.
In a sense, Gore and Bradley are running mirror-image campaigns. Gore has grown as a campaigner, able now to connect with an audience and cut up an opponent, even as he has shrunk as an advocate of good public policy. Bradley has grown as a public-policy advocate, emerging as the champion of causes that even liberals thought it politic to shelve, while going nowhere at all as a campaigner. The two tall centrists are distinguishable now. Yin and yin have become yin and yang after all.