"His gestalt is the gestalt of the time," an advisor to Bill Bradley was quoted by the New York Times as saying on the morning after the Democratic "town meeting" in New Hampshire last week. That comment crystallized for me what has been irritating about the former senator's campaign. As he floats above the fray, at first disinclined to debate and always projecting an aura of moral superiority, Bradley has begun to seem airy, insubstantial, unserious and a bit ... trendy.
Without dismissing his obvious intelligence or the difficulty of his decision to challenge an incumbent vice president, it is hard not to wonder exactly what has so swiftly transformed a fairly ordinary politician into a fashionable hero. Basketball groupies, Hollywood liberals, progressive wonks and assorted Nation readers all seem to be flocking to the Bradley banner as if a lifetime of waiting for Lefty had finally been rewarded.
Actually, the phenomenon transcends ideological boundaries. Bankers and corporate executives like Bradley, too, as their outpouring of contributions clearly indicates. But why?
It isn't easy to get an answer from his team that goes beyond "gestalt," which in turn sounds like a euphemism for "style." As charmless as the public Al Gore may sometimes be, the greater stylistic appeal of his opponent still eludes me. That is simply a matter of taste, of course, and doesn't yield to argument. The people who like Bradley just like him, with many making their judgment on personal experience -- and some of them are individuals for whom I have considerable respect.
Yet there is something troubling about Bradley's brand of anti-politics, which calls to mind similar poses adopted in past presidential campaigns by former Sens. Eugene McCarthy and John Anderson and the late Paul Tsongas. All those saintly figures seemed to imply, if only indirectly, that they might be too clean for the dirty compromises of national politics. (My own preference has always been for tougher, less pretentious pols like FDR, the late Robert Kennedy and his brother Teddy, but hey, maybe that's just me.)
Bradley often alludes to his own purity when he speaks about the personal journey that led him to his present quest. He has described an epiphany of righteousness that made him abandon the Senate for a more contemplative life of speechmaking and writing (and, oh yes, investment banking). He felt an equal revulsion, as he said at the time, toward both Democrats and Republicans -- enough so that in 1996 he briefly considered running as an independent for president.
Fortunately for him and for us, he suppressed that impulse, which might conceivably have resulted in a Republican victory. In fact, Bradley sensibly traveled around the country to campaign for Democratic congressional candidates that year. But his peculiar attitude toward his own party lingers even now.
Bradley offers no rigorous critique of Democratic policies and programs. He is certainly not a radical. Instead, the ex-senator communicates his distaste for the compromises and conflicts of real politics, and a fuzzy vision of triumph by the truly virtuous. He seems almost innocently oblivious to the true "gestalt of the time," which has been marked by the struggle of Democrats and progressives to contain and defeat a powerful, ambitious and well-funded right-wing movement.
That may be because Bradley was never emotionally engaged by those nasty battles. Back when Ronald Reagan was president, the New Jersey Democrat capitulated instantly to the 1981 budget cuts, with all their devastating impact on poor children and minority communities. Worse still, he voted for Reagan's brutal and corrupt Contra war in Central America. While his career voting record was generally decent for a moderate Democrat, he has yet to explain those particular aberrations.
He also should explain why he walked away from the Senate at a moment when Social Security, Medicare, affirmative action, abortion rights, environmental protection and much else that any Democrat ought to hold dear were threatened by Newt Gingrich's barbaric "revolution." Whatever the many faults of President Clinton and Al Gore may be, they at least can say that they fought back.
The differences on issues between Bradley and Gore are minimal, though Gore seems to be better at arithmetic. Bradley apparently thinks feelings matter more than issues anyway. Although he is being marketed as the candidate most likely to beat George W. Bush, that can only be proved by primary victories. And to achieve those he will have to present something more useful than the politics of gestalt.
Otherwise, when he faces the voters, he may turn out to be just another beautiful loser.