The thinker

Bill Bradley may have "big ideas," but as a notoriously cautious senator he sat out the big political fights.

Topics: Campaign Finance, Democratic Party,

These are heady days for former Sen. Bill Bradley. In early July the media was gushing about the $36 million George W. Bush had raised. But in some respects, Bradley’s $9 million haul during the same three-month period was even more impressive.

His total was just a tad less than the $11 million raised by Al Gore. That’s astounding considering that Gore has inherited most of Bill Clinton’s vaunted fund-raising apparatus.

But the energy in the Bradley campaign isn’t focused simply on fund-raising. One Saturday earlier this month, when I made the rounds of the various presidential campaign headquarters in New Hampshire, most were locked up for the weekend.

Not Bradley’s, however. His office in Concord was humming with activity, with a dozen or more campaign workers manning phones, stapling posters and scribbling on yellow pads of paper.

When I stopped by Gore’s comparatively spacious headquarters in Manchester a bit later, I found one guy hidden away behind a clutter of partitions looking over some papers and watching the Women’s World Cup Soccer championship game. When I asked him why there was so much more going on back at Bradley headquarters, he thought about it for a moment and then told me, “I guess they feel like they’ve got to win here.” Not the kind of response that gives you a lot of confidence in the vice president’s campaign.

To date, however, Bradley’s biggest bump in national news coverage came July 6 when he picked up the endorsement of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. That was followed by word that retiring New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s nod will likely follow later in the year.

In official Washington, few senators have better reputations for statesmanship and sagacity than Kerrey and Moynihan. And their decision to endorse former Senate colleague Bradley over former Senate colleague Gore has added still greater luster to Bradley’s image as the thinking person’s Democrat for president. Bradley, Kerrey and Moynihan are really senatorial peas in a pod.

To the vice president’s supporters, of course, this is simply the anti-Clinton wing of the Democratic party lining up against the president’s heir apparent. Both Kerrey and Moynihan have been conspicuously dismissive of the president. And the only other senator who’s endorsed Bradley, Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, has been a persistent critic of the president from the party’s left-liberal wing.

The pundits are right that there’s more to the Kerrey endorsement. But it doesn’t necessarily say something good about Bradley. Rather, it points to what could be a Bradley presidency’s greatest fault. While Kerrey has a splendid reputation in official Washington, he has distinguished himself largely by remaining aloof from the great political battles of the last decade. Unfortunately, you can say much the same about Bradley.

In the 1993 budget-bill and health-care-reform battles, in the government shutdowns and in the recent impeachment crisis, Kerrey and Bradley could each be found fretting on the sidelines or spouting self-serving criticisms rather than taking any particular stand. Lately that’s been mostly forgotten in the rush of praise for Bradley’s campaign rhetoric about “big ideas.”

Bill Clinton’s personal character may leave a lot to be desired, but on the yardstick of political character Kerrey and Bradley have often come up short. There is no denying Bradley’s allure as a candidate. As a senator he devoted a great deal of time to studying and mastering some of the great political questions of our day — issues like economic globalization and tax policy, which make most voters’ eyes glaze over.

He also was one of the heroes of the 1986 tax reform. One observer who watched Bradley on Capitol Hill in the 1980s recently told me that Bradley delved into the intricacies of policy questions with the intensity you would expect of a lowly staffer, not a senator.

But if Bradley has a fault it is an ingrained quality of indecision and a diffidence in the face of political commitment. Today on the campaign trail he tells his audiences that he will make the fight for universal health care a centerpiece of his campaign and his presidency. But his own role in the health-care debate in 1993 and 1994 paints a different picture.

During his time in the Senate, Bradley advocated various government health-care programs. But in 1994, while supporting health-care reform in very general terms, he drove the supporters of reform to distraction by refusing to throw his considerable political clout behind any particular plan until the very last moment, and in so doing helped kill the prospects for reform.

His stance the following year was even more difficult to fathom. When the 104th Congress (that of the “Republican Revolution”) was cutting every government program in sight and gearing up to shut down the government itself in late 1995, Bradley announced his retirement from the Senate with a “pox on both your houses” speech directed against both parties.

“The political debate,” Bradley intoned, “has settled into two familiar ruts. The Republicans are infatuated with the ‘magic’ of the market and reflexively criticize government as the enemy of freedom, and the Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems, and [prefer] the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can’t control.”

That was a funny thing for a Democrat to say on the eve of the government shutdown. It’s no wonder many fellow Dems were left wondering aloud just what the hell he was thinking.

The point, of course, is not that Bradley’s political bona fides depend on whether or not he supported the Clinton line during the health-care debate or the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. It’s simply that during the big political fights that roiled the nation’s politics over the last decade, Bradley could usually be found on the sidelines rather than staking out or fighting for any clear position.

You could say Bradley was pondering the issues or you could say he was just twiddling his thumbs. Whichever you choose, the fact remains he seldom put himself on the line when things got tough. That’s a glaring fault in a candidate who now promises to take on the big questions with “big ideas.”

By way of contrast, Bradley’s other supporter in the Senate, Paul Wellstone, has frequently opposed the administration. But he’s done so with clear and consistent positions on the issues — most memorably his courageous and risky decision to vote against welfare reform on the eve of his own re-election in 1996.

If political aloofness is Bradley’s failing, it’s virtually Kerrey’s trademark. Despite his vaunted reputation in Washington circles, he has compiled a lengthy list of political flip-flops and no-shows that should have seriously tarnished his reputation long ago.

In 1993, for example, when congressional Democrats passed the president’s budget bill with single-vote margins in both the House and the Senate (and in part lost both houses the next year for doing so), Kerrey kept the capital on tenterhooks, publicly agonizing over whether he could vote for the president’s bill.

Finally, speaking from the floor of the Senate only hours before the bill’s passage, in what can only be called a masterstroke of self-serving rhetoric, Kerrey told President Clinton, “If you are watching now, as I suspect you are, I could not and would not cast a vote that would bring down your presidency.”

Kerrey’s record on health-care reform is similarly dubious. In his unsuccessful 1992 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he made national health care insurance the centerpiece of his campaign. He supported a “single-player” plan, which he called Health USA, and derided candidate Clinton’s proposal for being insufficiently ambitious.

Under a single-payer system, the federal government in essence becomes the insurer for all the country’s citizens. The single-payer approach has many arguments to recommend it, but it is a very root-and-branch approach to the problem.

But by 1994, when the going had really gotten tough for health-care reform, Kerrey couldn’t even bring himself to support the much less ambitious Clinton proposal. “Disappointed, mystified, totally perplexed,” is how one reform advocate described the reaction among reformers to Kerrey’s turnabout.

“I cannot fathom this gargantuan change,” complained Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. “He felt resolute about the single-payer approach being the only one that would work. Now, his mantra is the same mantra used by opponents of serious reform: government, bureaucracy, taxes.”

Again, maybe Kerrey just saw the error of his ways on health care reform. But given his track record on other issues, it seems more likely that Kerrey is not so much politically consistent as he is consistently in favor of the political conventional wisdom.

Bradley at least did impressive work on tax reform in the 1980s. But Kerrey has spent much of the 1990s playing the part of the statesman without coming up with a lot of statesmanlike accomplishments. Kerrey’s popularity with political pundits rests largely on his apparent bipartisanship. He maintains his political independence, avoids sullying himself in partisan political squabbling and looks to the big picture — or so the conventional wisdom goes.

That’s the mantle that Bradley has been looking to take up. But that apolitical quality can also simply be an unwillingness to get one’s hands dirty. And independence like that can really just be a tendency to spurt self-serving and picayune criticisms while other people actually do the hard work of pushing difficult legislation.

That is what divides Al Gore and Bill Bradley today. Gore’s problem is not so much that he’s getting the blame for Bill Clinton’s sexual shenanigans. It’s more that he is bruised and hemmed in by many of the political fights and compromises of the administration in which he’s served.

But if, as Bradley claims, the Clinton administration is really so beholden to the “micro-initiatives” that Bradley now criticizes them for, it’s not because they necessarily like reform parceled out in morsels. It’s because they tried big things like health care early in the administration and got their heads handed to them, while guys like Bradley were sitting on the sidelines.

It shouldn’t surprise us that some sushi-and-Starbucks Democrats are eager to jump on the Bradley bandwagon. He’s conspicuously thoughtful and reflective. And he’s not tainted by all that campaign-finance messiness or the uninspiring policy initiatives of the latter Clinton years. But is Bradley just novelty and talk over Gore’s duty and accomplishment?

During his tenure in the Senate, Bradley had about him the quality of a Moynihan-in-the-making, a senator-philosopher who looks to the big picture and asks the big questions, but sometimes turns a deaf ear to his constituents’ more parochial and mundane concerns. The day after he announced his retirement, Moynihan himself told the New York Times that, under the new Republican majority, Bradley had been relegated to the sidelines on a number of issues he cared about deeply.

“That is not a very exciting way to live,” Moynihan opined, “and it is not a very cerebral way to live.” True enough. It probably wasn’t all that fun being a Senate Democrat during Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution.

But we don’t hire senators to enjoy themselves or indulge their interest in the finer points of policy. If politics at its best is about principles and grand ideas, it is also a matter of doggedness and the willingness to stand and fight important political battles, even when they descend into the sort of nasty political trench warfare that characterized the 104th Congress.

The Bradley people have sought to wrap their candidate in the mantle of exile and return. Bradley got fed up with politics as usual in the 1990s. He spent his time in the political wilderness. And now he’s back to use what he’s learned to help the country. At least, that’s the story they’re trying to tell.

In his own way Bradley has always been a compelling figure and his attraction is no less apparent today. When you see Bradley on the campaign trail and listen to his speeches, you want to believe there’s something to the story his people are trying to weave around him. And maybe there is. But his record in recent years, and the political friends he’s lining himself up with, don’t give a lot of cause for optimism.

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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