Bill Bradley's Long Shot.
This was no easy task.
The former Senator from New Jersey and Vice President Al Gore are almost indistinguishable figures. Both have famous names, impressive educational resumes, solid records of legislative service, and middle-of-the-road politics.
"I think we clearly have a difference on welfare," Bradley responded.
For a few seconds, it seemed as if Bradley might actually be preparing to challenge Gore on a platform of progressive ideals--such as maintaining America's commitment to poor children. In no time, however, the former New York Knicks star was reflecting on values, basketball, the perils of partisanship, and the fact that "I'm not really running against Al Gore."
With less than a year to go before the Democratic primary process yields the party's 2000 nominee, Bradley has emerged as the most serious challenger to the hyper-aggressive and exceptionally well-funded Gore campaign--which reportedly is raising in excess of $600,000 in contributions each week.
While other candidates could still enter the race, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, it is Bradley who in the critical first months of 1999 rose to the task.
A notoriously ambivalent Presidential campaigner, Bradley has been identified as a potential contender in each of the past four campaign cycles--turning down what many saw as ripe prospects in 1988 and 1992, and ditching a potential 1996 challenge to Bill Clinton only after stirring intense national speculation.
So uncertain has been Bradley's ambition that even some of the former Senator's most enthusiastic boosters were surprised when he finally decided to take on Gore. His declaration was less than stirring: "I looked in the mirror and said, I'm ready. I'm really, kind of, at the top of my game. And, therefore, I bring my experience, talents, abilities, whatever they are, and offer them to the American people."
While Gore has been making cold calls to precinct committees in Iowa and New Hampshire for years, Bradley remains a slow starter.
"Do you go to the prom with the guy who asks you three times or the one who never calls?" muses outgoing New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Jeff Woodburn, who recently accepted Gore's invitation.
Gore--who is at least as conservative as Bill Clinton--has had remarkable success collecting the support of traditional liberals. When the AFL-CIO brass met in Miami in February, Gore was given the marquee spot on the speaker's roster, while Bradley had to hustle a last-minute invitation.
Despite his long tenure in the limelight as a National Basketball Association star, three-term Senator from New Jersey, best-selling author, and national scold on issues such as campaign finance reform and race relations, the latest Time/CNN poll shows that 54 percent of Americans do not know who Bill Bradley is. Polls in the key early battlefields for the nomination--Iowa and New Hampshire--show him trailing the Vice President by as much as a 4-1 margin.
In some ways, Bradley has much to offer the Democratic Party's core constituencies. His concern for the poor appears genuine. He supports gay and lesbian rights. His race record is impeccable.
Novelist E.L. Doctorow calls him "one of the most principled and compassionate public servants of our age." Bradley's friend Harvard professor Cornel West calls the candidate "a member of a rare and endangered species in our public life: the respected statesman who fuses the life of the mind with public service."
A commitment to federal programs aiding the poor was a hallmark of Bradley's eighteen-year tenure in the Senate. He was one of only twenty-one Democratic Senators who in 1996 broke with the Clinton-Gore Administration to vote against the welfare reform plan that ended the federal government's sixty-year guarantee of basic support for needy kids.
"I thought there was a federal obligation to individual children who are poor--not simply an obligation to take a pot of money and send it from one group of politicians to another group of politicians in a state," he explained.
Few who know Bradley doubt him when he says, "Racial discrimination is the ultimate evil for me." He abandoned his own Republican roots to become a Democrat in large part because of what he called "the leadership on civil rights by a Democratic President"--Lyndon Johnson.
Bradley's experience playing professional basketball made him an impassioned advocate for racial reconciliation. "I saw that if you're black in America, you never know when the next moment might bring a slight, a slur, a slug," he says. "Besides enjoying the warmth of my black teammates' friendship and the inspiration of their personal histories, besides seeing the powerful role of family in their lives and the strength of each one's individuality, I began to understand distrust and suspicion.... And I realized how much I will never know about what it is to be black in America."
On issues of race, he has been courageous and uncompromising. His speech on the Senate floor following the Los Angeles riots of 1992 put the tepid pronouncements of his party's leadership to shame. Bradley has linked his rhetoric to policy, crusading to preserve affirmative-action programs and condemning the thinly veiled racism of welfare-reform proposals.
Even so, Gore, not Bradley, enjoys much higher approval ratings in the African-American community, a critical Democratic primary voting bloc. This is particularly true in Southern states, where close to 85 percent of black voters polled rank Gore favorably. Despite years of being identified as perhaps the most racially sensitive white Democrat in the nation, Bradley barely achieves half that level of positive feeling among black voters.
For a man who places such an emphasis on values and principles, Bradley sometimes finds himself on shifting moral ground. His 1990 reelection campaign--which raised $12 million, relying heavily on Hollywood and Wall Street money and political action committee contributions--was one of the most expensive in American history up to that point. Yet he left the Senate in 1996 in part because he said he could no longer stomach the fundraising. Now, as a Presidential candidate, he promises to champion campaign finance reform--and he certainly has a better claim to the issue than Gore. Yet Bradley shows little evidence of conversion as he talks of raising $20 million for the primary campaign and jets off to fundraisers with the same entertainment industry insiders who funneled millions into the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.
A resolute free marketeer through most of his career, the Democratic
alternative to Gore actually shares the Vice President's worst tendencies when it comes to international trade issues. Three days before the 1993 Congressional vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a New York Times article outlined the deep political divide within the Democratic Party over the plan to abolish tariffs and trade barriers with Mexico and Canada. The article identified the bill's leading supporters as Al Gore and Bill Bradley, both of whom declared, "To defeat NAFTA endangers the Presidency." Bradley added: "The days of the forty-year career on the assembly line of one company making one product are over."
This was not a momentary deviation for a man who has often kept company with the Democratic Leadership Council. "If I had to put a label on Bradley, I'd say he was a New Democrat before there were New Democrats," says Richard Aregood, editorial page editor of the Newark Star-Ledger. No shock then that Bradley, who since leaving the Senate has been employed as a senior adviser at J.P. Morgan & Co., counts among his top backers Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, Barnes and Noble chairman Leonard Riggio, and Disney chief Michael Eisner. As Randall Rothenberg, author of The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics, once explained, "Bradley's economic savvy has made him a darling of the financial community."
It has not, however, made him the sort of candidate who might be able to attract strong labor backing. During his almost two decades in the Senate, Bradley's AFL-CIO ratings sometimes dipped into the sixties, far below those of Ted Kennedy and even Al Gore. Bradley's autobiography, Time Present, Time Past, features a chapter on "Trouble With Unions" that--while clearly sympathetic to the fate of American industrial workers in an era of economic globalization--relies heavily on tired phrases about the wonders of retraining, customized production, and "working smarter."
Bradley's free market tendencies have put him on the wrong side of a host of farm issues. His response to the 1994 health care debate--"Let's not promise more than we can deliver"--was disappointing. And his streak of fiscal conservatism has led to embarrassing stances over the years, including a vote for Ronald Reagan's program-cutting first budget and support for the GOP's line-item veto.
Bradley's record on military adventurism abroad is also decidedly mixed. An admitted latecomer to the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s, Bradley did vote against Bush's 1991 request for authorization to use force in the Persian Gulf (while Gore backed Bush). At the same time, Bradley was a supporter of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
Perhaps most distressing of all is Bradley's record as an on-again, off-again supporter of the contras. Through much of the 1980s, Bradley opposed Reagan's efforts to fund the forces seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. When he campaigned for reelection to the Senate in 1984, Bradley even drew attention to his opposition to contra aid. Two years later, however, Bradley suddenly switched his position to vote in support of a $100 million aid package for the Nicaraguan rebels. While Gore was voting with Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont to block aid to the contras, Bradley was voting with Orrin Hatch of Utah and Phil Gramm of Texas. The New Jersey Senator emerged as one of the leading Democratic supporters of contra aid for several years, writing op-ed pieces that denounced "Sandinista adventurism" and echoed the Reagan Administration's "No one wants another Cuba in the region" rhetoric.
Bradley's change in position stirred a public outcry, with thousands of constituents calling his office in protest. A dozen people were arrested during a sit-in at the Senator's Union City, New Jersey, office. In 1988, he opposed a bid to provide new military aid to the contras, but he maintained a line on Central American politics that more frequently paralleled that of the Reagan Administration than that of grassroots Democrats.
Though he rarely brings up Gore, Bradley will, when pushed, offer a second contrast between himself and the Vice President: "I'd be better able to attract Independents and Republicans in a general election."
That isn't exactly reassuring to progressives, who want someone to stand on principles for a change. Nor does it make much tactical sense. The Democratic nominating process will include few Independents and even fewer Republicans. Indeed, the delegates to the 1996 Democratic National Convention who unanimously renominated Clinton and Gore also indicated in a pre-convention survey that the Administration was too conservative for their tastes.
If Bradley wants to dislodge Gore, it would seem that the logical hunting ground is among the social, economic, and foreign policy liberals, labor union members, small farmers, gays and lesbians, and people of color who traditionally maintain the highest levels of participation in Democratic primaries. But Bradley has yet to make a concerted appeal to those constituencies.
There is no question that Bradley is right when he says that "politics is broken" in America. He is right when he says that the system is "paralyzed and polarized" by poll-driven compromises and the influence of special-interest money. But as of yet, he has not found a coherent way to offer an alternative to the politics of Clinton and Gore.
As Wayne King, a former New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial candidate who has emerged as Bradley's top backer in that state, puts it: "We're going to have to have a break from this [Clinton-Gore] Administration."
The evidence from the first weeks of the former basketball star's campaign, however, is that for Bradley it will not be a fast break.
John Nichols is editorial page editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes regularly about electoral politics for The Progressive.
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|Title Annotation:||presidential candidate needs clearer platform|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1999|
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