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Scanning the Presidential Playground.

As the new millennium crept over the Eastern horizon, Americans welcomed in the fresh era to the sound of Vice President Al Gore denouncing his rival for the Democratic nomination, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, as being a red. Gore thus recruited to the radical tradition a man who sat in the U.S. Senate for eighteen years a state of torpid obedience to capital so diligent that his main legislative achievement in that span was the attachment of no less than thirty-five riders written by lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry, whose well-being is the prime concern of all mature legislators from New Jersey.

Why do liberals like Bradley? It's one of the marvels of the season that Bill Bradley has been able to muster to his cause such bankable liberal names as Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, Harvard Professor Cornel West, Robert Reich, and the editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, plus a sizable slab of the liberal Hollywood crowd.

But on the big issues--trade, labor, defense, crime, health care, and the environment--Bradley and Gore are pretty much indistinguishable. Both supported the contras in the 1980s. Both follow the neoliberal line charted by the Democratic Leadership Council back in the late 1980s. In the past, Gore has pandered to the right on issues such as race, crime, and tobacco. Bradley's signals to Wall Street that he's their man are, even in these lax times, shameless well beyond the point of indelicacy. In the one-paragraph statement on economic policy on the Bradley web site, phrases such as "prudent fiscal policy," "open markets," "lowest possible tax rates," and "keep capital flowing freely" bow and scrape from every line.

Most "left liberals" (these days the taxonomy of progressiveness inside the Democratic Party is a tricky business) should have known something was amiss when Bradley sought and got the endorsements of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey. If that wasn't evidence enough of Bradley's neoliberalism, surely the sanctioning of his campaign by former Fed chief Paul Volcker and Wall Street investor Warren Buffett should have driven the point home. Even Bill Clinton's man Paul Begala has a hard time telling the difference between Gore and Bradley: "There is no true liberal to be found in this race ... just two centrists that, watch them very closely, will become more so."

There have been some principled votes in Bradley's career: for national health insurance, against welfare "reform," against the nomination of Alan Greenspan to chair the Federal Reserve. But Al Gore claims that Bradley has a habit of quitting when the going gets tough, and the Vice President has a point. Though he now proclaims that a President has "to confront challenges," Bradley has been a timid politician, rarely sticking his neck out.

Despite being endorsed by several antiwar groups, Bradley has a mixed record on military issues. Early in this campaign, he positioned himself as the only candidate calling for a cut in the Pentagon's budget, targeting weapons systems that "primarily benefit arms companies." But even before the first primary, Bradley scuttled back in pell-mell retreat from this daring onslaught on the Merchants of Death and from his earlier view that the U.S. no longer needs to maintain sufficient forces to fight two major wars simultaneously. He has prudently deferred most specifics on military matters, telling the Des Moines Register, "I don't want to battle the doctrine till we do the analysis." On the Star Wars absurdity ($55 billion and counting), Bradley has maintained a sphinx-like silence. His own shield against troublesome questions about his posture on the Pentagon budget runs as follows: "The Pentagon's budget should be spent more efficiently, not cut or increased."

Bradley's oft-proclaimed concern for children in need might have found appropriate expression in a denunciation of the U.N./U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which are killing 5,000 kids a month. Instead, Bradley has come out for tougher sanctions. In a debate on Meet the Press on December 19, he criticized Clinton and Gore for agreeing to a proposal at the U.N. Security Council that conceivably could ease sanctions sometime in the remote distance: "I think the only reason the Security Council should have acted would be to tighten sanctions," said Bradley. "And what this did was loosen them up.... I happen to think that it's a very serious mistake. We should not have gone in that direction."

When Friends of the Earth endorsed Bill Bradley over Al Gore, it raised the hackles on Gore's back and surprised many in the media. New Jersey is the chemical state and regularly battles Louisiana for the top spot on the EPA's annual compilation of toxic emissions. "It's not as if Bradley was bad on the environment," says Roy Gutierrez, a Green from Jersey City. "He just seemed indifferent, as if he couldn't be bothered. When people needed his help, like at Toms River, he was AWOL." (Toms River is a deadly chemical landscape.)

When it came to Seattle, he was AWOL again, steering clear of a fine opportunity to emphasize his enviro-credentials against Al Gore. Perhaps he thought it would be too hypocritical, since he is a rabid free-trader.

For years, Bradley was a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. While he was willing to attach his name to dozens of measures as a co-sponsor, he rarely took a leadership role. He backed George Bush's Clean Air Act revisions of 1990, which opened a market in pollution credits that greens derisively term "cancer bonds." From 1993 to 1994, when Clinton had assumed power and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, few environmental measures were enacted, largely because they were bottled up in Bradley's committee.

Out on the stump, Bradley talks about how the tides of big money have "corrupted and corroded" American politics. But in the boardrooms, Dollar Bill has proven himself to be a ferocious fundraiser. Between July and September of 1999, he raised more than $6.7 million, a half million more than Gore. For the year, Bradley has raked in more than $20 million from contributors led by the financial sector, Washington lobbyists, e-commerce firms, and drug companies.

In sum, if Bradley is a liberal, then liberalism is dead.

But we knew that, didn't we?

The Republican match to Bradley as long-shot challenger is Arizona's John McCain. McCain is often called a "war hero," a title adorning an unlovely resume. He graduated fifth from the bottom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned the nickname "McNasty." He flew twenty-three bombing missions over North Vietnam, each averaging about half an hour, total time ten hours and thirty minutes. For these brief excursions, he was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Legion of Honor, and three Purple Hearts. U.S. Veteran Dispatch calculates our hero earned a medal an hour, which is pretty good going.

McCain was shot down over Hanoi on October 26,1967, and parachuted into Truc Boch Lake. He was hauled out by Vietnamese and put in prison. A couple of years later, he was interviewed in a prison camp by Fernando Barral, a Spanish psychiatrist living in Cuba. The interview appeared in Granma on January 24, 1970. Barral's evaluation of McCain is quoted by Amy Silverman, author of many excellent pieces on McCain in the Phoenix-based New Times weekly. Barral said he wanted to describe "the personality of the prisoner who is responsible for many criminal bombings of the people. He showed himself to be intellectually alert during the interview. From a morale point of view, he is not in traumatic shock. He was able to be sarcastic and even humorous, indicative of psychic equilibrium. From the moral and ideological point of view, he showed us he is an insensitive individual without human depth, who does not show the slightest concern, who does not appear to have thought about the criminal acts he committed against a population from the absolute impunity of his airplane, and that nevertheless those people saved his life, fed him, and looked after his health, and he is now healthy and strong. I believe that he has bombed densely populated places for sport. I noted that he was hardened, that he spoke of banal things as if he were at a cocktail party."

McCain is deeply loved by the press. As Silverman puts it, "As long as he's the noble outsider, McCain can get away with anything, it seems--the Keating Five, a drug-stealing wife, nasty jokes about Chelsea Clinton--and the pundits will gurgle and coo." Indeed they will. William Satire, Maureen Dowd, Russell Baker, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair have all slobbered over McCain in fervent prose. The culmination was a love poem from Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, who managed to avoid any inconvenient mention of McCain's close relationship with S&L fraudster Charles Keating, with whom the Senator and his kids romped on Bahamian beaches.

McCain's escape from the Keating debacle was nothing short of miraculous, probably the activity for which he most deserves a medal for survival skills. After all, he took more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the swindler Keating between 1982 and 1988, while simultaneously log-rolling for him on Capitol Hill. In the same period, McCain took nine trips to Keating's place in the Bahamas. When the muck began to rise, McCain threw Keating over the side, hastily reimbursed him for the trips, and suddenly developed a profound interest in campaign finance reform.

The pundits love McCain because he talks about soft money's baneful role in politics, thus garnering for himself a reputation for courting the enmity of his colleagues.

In fact, colleagues in the Senate regard McCain as a mere grandstander. They know that he already has a big war chest left over from his last Senatorial campaign, plus torrents of PAC money from the corporations that crave his indulgence as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Communications companies (U.S. West, Bell South, AT&T, Bell Atlantic) have been particularly effusive in McCain's treasury, as have banks, military contractors, and UPS.

McCain is the kind of Republican that liberals love: solid military credentials as a former POW, ever ready with acceptable sound bites on campaign finance reform and other cherished issues. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he still maintains the reputation of a feisty independent who likes nothing better than to slash away at Pentagon pork for the benefit of the taxpayer.

Last year, McCain chose December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, to deliver his big speech on defense from the aircraft carrier Intrepid, now a museum, in New York. His comments offered an instructive insight into the real John McCain--friend and ally of profligate waste.

Much of his remarks could have been lifted from any Republican stump speech of the last twenty years--"bombers older than the men who fly them," "12,000 enlisted personnel" forced to accept "food stamps to feed their families," "ill-considered reduction in the carrier fleet," a pledge to increase defense spending, and so on. Given that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were on hand for the occasion, it should have come as no surprise that the Senator carefully eschewed an attack on theft and waste by our senior warriors. Instead, he blamed Congress for what he called the "disgrace" of the recently enacted defense budget, although he knew full well that the rules of military pork require that one of the services submits a boondoggle as a "requirement" somewhere deep in the small print, whereupon a Senator or Congressman slips it into the bill. McCain did say that $6 billion of the new budget was "waste," though without citing specific cases.

On the other hand, he was very specific in his support for what is potentially the greatest boondoggle of them all--missile defense.

After dutiful references to currently modish specters such as cyber-warfare--"tiny fiber-optic threads" carrying "viruses as incapacitating as an armed attack"--and the menace of our old "rogue state" friends, the North Koreans, the Iranians, and the Iraqis, McCain declared that "ballistic missile defense is now a national priority, not just another Pentagon program."

That being the case, he would shred the ABM treaty--a "treaty that has become a relic of the Cold War," whether the Russians and the Chinese liked it or not--and get on with the program.

So McCain is happy to commit to spending $120 billion (the probable eventual cost of a deployed system) on a weapon that will not work against a threat that does not exist (only the North Koreans show any sign of developing an ICBM program, and even that keeps failing its tests). McCain's support for missile defense shows how much he really cares about Pentagon waste.

His true feelings, as revealed by actions as opposed to rhetoric, are already familiar to denizens of the Senate. In 1998, he made a stirring speech denouncing $200 million worth of pork in the military construction budget and then sat down. He did not bother to use any of the tools available to Senators for gumming up the machinery in order to get his way.

No filibuster, no maneuvering, just hot air.

This year, he engaged in a similar exercise of worthless posturing. Egged on by eager staff, he moved an amendment to the defense appropriations bill restoring $2.5 billion for "readiness," i.e., spare parts, which had been removed by his colleagues in order to free up money for choice procurement projects. Once again, he made a noble speech on the real needs of our fighting men and women and denounced (without naming names) those who put political advantage ahead of patriotism.

Once again, he sat down after twenty minutes and made no further efforts to secure passage of his amendment, to

McCain's rival, George W. Bush, embodies the vital function of the scaremonger, touted by Democrats as the monster in the wings, requiring unity, the return of all straying Third Party folk to the Democratic fold. Of course, no one will ever replace the late great Newt Gingrich in this role, a man whose supposed menace prompted frantic Democrats to toss millions into the treasury of the Democratic National Committee.

As a bogeyman, Bush lacks edge except for his full-employment plan for executioners in the Texas prison system. Essentially, he's Quayle with spell-check. Though the national press touts Bush as virtually a sure thing for the White House, it's hard to imagine him surviving an arduous series of campaign debates, given his almost catatonic ignorance.

There's also a rich mulch of scandal to be turned over in his political past, beginning with the still-outstanding issue of his precise relationship to cocaine. Then there is his gubernatorial solicitude for the well-being of Houston-based Service Corporation International, the world's "largest death-care provider." Bush's vulnerability to scandal is remarkably reminiscent of Bill Clinton's back in 1992. The press let off the Arkansas governor at that time, so maybe Bush will be similarly fortunate.

But Bush's relationship with SCI shows the difficulties Democrats may have in attacking him. This malodorous multinational has had as a board member Gore's campaign chairman Tony Coelho, who has served as a director since 1991, with total annual compensation of $176,000 for attending twelve meetings.

If there's a face-off between Gore and Bush, the major environmental groups will be allotted their usual function of shilling for the Democratic National Committee, issuing searing denunciations of Bush as a potential Attila of the planet, whose Presidency would reduce America to an irradiated ruin in four years. In fact, on the specific issue of irradiation, Bush will be able to say truthfully that as Texas Governor he opposed the nuclear waste dump scheduled to be sited in the poor Hispanic community of Sierra Blanca, whereas Democrats such as Gore and even Bernard Sanders, Independent of Vermont, vehemently favored it. The Sierra Blanca issue is a useful reminder of how widely separated truth is from appearance on green issues, which may be as decisive in 2000 as they were in 1996 and 1998.

When Friends of the Earth endorsed Bradley over Gore, the Sierra Club deprecated the move but now the Club itself is torn over any endorsement of Gore. We do not propose here to review the entire career and political personality of the Veep, but remember: Gore's awful green record is matched by kindred derelictions in social and economic policy. He's a proponent of increased military spending, he boasts of voting in favor of the Persian Gulf War, he supports the nation's cruel drug, incarceration, and execution policies, he's indifferent to corporate concentration, he cheerleads for free trade and generally defends the appalling roster of the Clinton-Gore years.

As a pointer, we offer a resume of exactly why greens should be dubious about supporting him as a defender of the planet against Republican mauling. The points were drafted by Michael Dorsey, a member of the Sierra Club's board, who offered them in January as a sound basis for the group to refuse to endorse Gore.

* Gore has failed to save forests both in this country and worldwide. At the WTO, in concert with his boss, he began to push for a global free trade agreement on timber with no conservation measures.

* At the start of 1999, the Administration killed the Biosafety Convention being negotiated in Cartagena because Clinton and Gore wanted to protect the interests of biotechnology firms.

* Although Gore launched an initiative against sprawl in 1999, he is simultaneously promoting sprawl in Florida. His actions will ultimately harm Everglades National Park by locating a commercial aviation and industrial center adjacent to it.

* Gore broke his commitment to clean water in Appalachia. Further, the failure of the Administration to enforce the strip mine law has resulted in the removal of entire tops of mountains, the filling of valleys with rubble, and the obliteration of more than 1,000 miles of streams. When West Virginia citizens successfully sued the Office of Surface Mining, the Administration conspired with the West Virginia Congressional delegation to create a political uproar and to get the judge's ruling stayed pending an appeal. Justice has still not come to the victims of mining in West Virginia, where the armageddon of mountain top removal continues unabated.

* In 1992, Gore promised to keep offshore oil and gas drilling away from the Florida coastline. Yet he never followed through on this promise, despite opposition to such drilling by both Florida Democrats and Republicans. Now, after seven years of pressure from many environmental organizations, Gore says that in the future he will oppose new offshore leases. Why, if he feels this way, did he do nothing over the past seven years, thus allowing the Chevron lease to advance through the administrative process when even the state of Florida, governed by Jeb Bush, opposed it?

* Gore demanded that chemical manufacturers begin new tests on nearly 2,800 chemicals. If they don't volunteer to do the tests, he'll force them to do so in what is now called the High Production Volume (HPV) Challenge. The tests include the gruesome lethal-dose-50-percent test (LD50), in which animals are forced to ingest or inhale a chemical in increasing doses until half are dead. In all, Gore's plan will kill an estimated 800,000 birds, fish, rats, mice, and other animals. It will cost taxpayers at least $14 million.

* In 1992, Gore promised to stop the big hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, but today the project has proceeded and is polluting the community.

* Gore quit on his commitment to protect marine mammals. The Clinton-Gore Administration has undermined protections for giant sea turtles and dolphins as it bowed to pressure from Mexico, Thailand, India, and Pakistan to weaken our laws.

* In 1996, Gore directly ordered the EPA to slow down its implementation of tougher pesticide standards that were required by the Food Quality Protection Act. Since then, he has done nothing to help implement the Act, nothing to get the worst pesticides out of our foods, according to the Consumers' Union.

* Gore broke his commitment to protect wetlands ... but you get the idea.

Such are the options for the Oval Office in the first election of the new millennium.

It would be hyperbole to say that the American people have never been offered a worse choice. The choices are almost always awful. But the lesson of this particular list--shorn of the drama of a contrast between, say, Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater--is that the American political system, in terms of party structure and financing, is marvelously designed to produce no true choices except in the most marginal of matters.

It's true: McCain probably has a worse temper than Bradley, George W. Bush has read fewer books than Al Gore. It doesn't matter. In manners of substantive policy, they are all treading along the same well-beaten path.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair edit the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, which is published twice a month (see or call 1-800-840-3683). Cockburn and St. Clair co-wrote "Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press," (Verso, just reissued in paper).
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Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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