It’s March, and Bill Bradley is going out like a lamb.
Sixteen states are set to hold primaries Tuesday, and Bradley isn’t remotely close in any of them. In last week’s L.A. Times poll of California Democrats, he not only trailed Gore by a five-to-one margin, but was running three points behind John McCain and was tied with Boy George – among, I must reiterate, Democrats. Good thing for Bradley that Alan Keyes is still in the race; at least he won’t finish dead last.
Bradley wrapped up his California campaign last week with one aim only: making a graceful exit. At virtually no point in his CNN/L.A. Times debate with Al Gore did Bradley seek to draw any distinctions between his record and proposals and those of the Veep. Only when Times panelist Ron Brownstein prodded Bradley to affirm at least one of the criticisms that he had leveled at Gore during the campaign did Bradley finally respond, and the charge he chose to raise was instructive. Gore, he almost abashedly mentioned, had many years before voted against stripping tax exemptions from notorious Bob Jones U. – while Bradley had been one of just a small number of white legislators who’d stood with the Congressional Black Caucus in support of the measure (which concerned a wider range of questions as well).
When Bradley first announced his candidacy, he said his primary goal was to help move America beyond its racism, that no other mission was more central to his campaign or his public life. In the course of his campaign, he’s forcefully condemned the racial profiling practiced by most police agencies, and a criminal justice system that almost routinely imprisons non-white young men. He’s advocated social programs that disproportionately would benefit the non-white poor. No white presidential candidate since Robert Kennedy has put forth a set of policies so attuned to the social and economic needs of black and Latino America, yet Bradley ends the campaign with virtually no minority support. (Last week’s Times poll showed Gore leading Bradley among California African-Americans and Latinos by a 60-percent-to-8-percent margin.)
So when Ron Brownstein asked him to draw one final distinction, even though Bradley was endeavoring mightily to draw no distinctions at all, he could not resist flouting just one more time his anti-racist bona fides. He was leaving the stage; and he was determined that what remained of the audience at least know who he was.
On Wednesday morning, eight hours before that final debate, Bradley traveled to a community health center just one block from Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park – the heart of Latino L.A. – for one of those events that makes a campaign wistful for what might have been. For once, Bradley was talking to the right people with the right message. His one major California Latino supporter – State Senator Martha Escutia – had turned out several hundred Eastside residents to listen to Bradley and Escutia explain why he was the man for Pacific Boulevard.
One hallmark of the Bradley campaign is that he’s generally introduced by speakers more rousing and impassioned than he himself. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Paul Wellstone and Cornel West would bring crowds to fever pitch, only to have Bradley slowly cool them down. Huntington Park was no exception: Escutia brought Bradley to the mike with an introduction that was both moving and trenchant. It was also, at this terminal stage in Bradley’s campaign, surprisingly critical of Clinton-Gore policies and even more of Gore’s campaigning. Escutia recounted a late night Sacramento budget meeting in 1997 where she, then Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante, and then Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa had tried to find a way to fund medical coverage for legal immigrants – coverage that had been eliminated by the 1996 welfare reform bill that Gore had backed and Bradley opposed. Welfare reform was fine, she continued, but not when achieved “on the backs of children, and the elderly and legal immigrants.” She had planned to stay neutral in the presidential campaign, she went on, but then read Bradley’s health care proposal, and understood instantly how it would cover her constituents, as Gore’s proposal would not. Still, she said, she held back, and then “when I heard Al Gore say that Bill Bradley’s proposal would be bad for Latinos and African-Americans, I knew it was not true, and I said, ‘I’m ready to endorse Bill Bradley!’”
Bill Bradley may have let Al Gore distort his health plan in much the “Harry-and-Louise” manner that the insurance lobby had distorted the Clinton-Gore plan of 1994, but Martha Escutia wasn’t letting the Veep get away with so much as a misplaced comma. Contemptuous, impassioned, she closed the sale for Bradley – to this one, clearly persuaded crowd on this one, clearly too-late morning. An energized Bradley followed with an upbeat rendition of all the particular proposals – from health care to community colleges to the indexing of the minimum wage – that should have made him Pacific Boulevard’s candidate of choice. But the press was already filled with reports that long-time friends were counseling him to leave the race, and a sense of unreality hung over the entire enterprise. For everyone, that is, except Martha Escutia, who was determined to set the record straight even as her candidate was preparing himself for a debate in which he’d no longer dispute Al Gore’s most dubious allegations.
On the same day Bill Bradley was winding down the mainstream liberal presidential candidacy of 2000, Ralph Nader was cranking up its left gadfly counterpart. Three hours after Bradley left Pacific Boulevard, Nader told a sparsely attended press conference in downtown L.A. that he’d carry the Green Party’s banner on the presidential line this year, and more energetically than he had in 1996.
Nader has always been an ascetic workaholic, but even by his self-sacrificing standards, the idea of campaigning for the Greens has to seem an adventure in selflessness. If the party’s inability to promote or advance Nader’s visit last week is any indication, he’s going to have to handle the most minute arrangements of his campaign pretty much by himself.
Nader’s no kid: he’s 66, his hair flecked with gray, his face lined, his indignation unabated. If he had any flair for the dramatic, he’d take on a prophetic air. But Nader remains the most relentlessly undramatic figure on the left. On Wednesday, he spoke forcefully against the Democratic-Republican “duopoly,” for public funding of campaigns, for free media access to candidates, for a fair-trade rather than a free-trade global economy. Still, he was ever the careful lawyer sticking to his brief. When a woman asked him about his views on reparations for African-Americans, he didn’t pause, as another speaker might, to acknowledge to specific sins of slavery, or the specific plight of American blacks today, before dismissing the idea as divisive and impracticable. Instead, he told her that he favored bringing corporations to heel in the courts, publicly funding community organizations, making sure that no one’s right to sue was abrogated. Nothing in his answer referred in the slightest to any distinctly African-American concern as such; the woman felt compelled to press on, “But what about African-American reparations?” as if Nader had perhaps not heard her. But heard her he had, since he nodded and continued on in exactly the same vein. A principled universalist who knows a divisive issue when he hears one, Nader stuck to his melody and offered not a single comforting chord to his questioner.
Few speakers can lay out the corrosive effects of money on democracy , or outline the dangers of corporate one-worldism, as well as Nader can. Whether, in his cool righteousness, Nader can also make a crowd warm to him is questionable, but then, so is the ability of the Greens to assemble a crowd in the first place.
John McCain’s strengths and limitations are almost a reverse mirror-image of Nader’s. He may not be much on detail, but his feel for atmospherics is usually pretty deft. On Thursday morning, he traveled to Puente Learning Center in Boyle Heights to talk to a largely Latino crowd, and, without really outlining a single policy, he came away as the champion of racial tolerance and the avenging angel of economic populism.
McCain flayed Boy George not simply for his Bob Jones transgressions, but for his indifference to what McCain called “the growing gap between rich and poor.” More than a third of the proposed Bush tax cut, he went on, would go to the richest one-percent. None of that for John McCain, who pledged to use the surplus to pay down the debt. How exactly debt retirement would help Boyle Heights more than universal health insurance was not a topic McCain examined; but, as he did point out, at least he wasn’t suggesting a tax cut for Donald Trump. In the few instances where McCain did go specific – such as proposing legislation to allow teachers to discipline their students without fear of lawsuits – he stuck close to the more familiar terrain of cultural traditionalism.
McCain may be the candidate from Barry Goldwater’s Arizona, but on Tuesday he may find himself the candidate of the Nelson Rockefeller, Northeastern-moderate wing of the Republican Party – a wing so shrunken that it cannot keep McCain aloft. In the Democratic debate on Wednesday night, Al Gore was already making strenuous overtures to the McCain Republicans: like McCain and Bradley, and unlike the governor of Texas, Gore asserted, he was a champion of campaign finance reform. Whether Gore can exert much of a claim over McCain’s legions should he end up running against Bush is anything but clear. But there’s no disputing that Gore is already the beneficiary of the civil war now raging between McCain’s mavericks and Bush’s regulars. Indeed, but for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has seen his opposition party all but collapse in the past few months, Al Gore is suddenly the luckiest pol in the world.