The final days of the contest leading up to Tuesday's Democratic primary in New Hampshire revealed the true dimensions of the struggle between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Their competition isn't really over whose health insurance plan would better serve the poor, or whose commitment to abortion rights is more sincere or even whose character is the purest.
In fact, the differences between the two involve few great divisions over policy. Gore is neither so flawed, nor Bradley so virtuous, as to offer a clear choice on that basis.
No, the quarrel between these two Democrats, as it has taken on an increasingly petty and bickering tone in recent weeks, has really been more about someone who rarely gets mentioned by name -- President Bill Clinton.
Bradley's high-flown rhetoric may have inspired idealistic activists within the party, but his candidacy is rooted in something quite different -- the bitter dissatisfaction long harbored toward the Clinton White House by the ex-senator and some of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill -- most notably Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
These are the Democrats who, like most Republicans, never were able to accept the legitimacy of Bill Clinton's presidency, and who accordingly seized every opportunity to denigrate him. It may not be a coincidence that all of them obviously believe that they would have been more fit to occupy the Oval Office than the man chosen by the voters.
Indeed, Kerrey and Moynihan never quite recovered from the Nebraskan's resounding defeat by Clinton eight years ago. As a loyal associate of the president and his anointed heir, Gore therefore excites the same fury from this little Senate clique that he evokes among a media elite that still yearns for the president's scalp.
With the emergence of Bradley as their champion this election cycle, these old Clinton enemies saw a final opportunity to vanquish a president they have always despised.
Nowadays the Senate's rump faction of disgruntled Democrats could travel in a compact car, and it is scheduled to disappear almost entirely by next January, when both Moynihan and Kerrey retire. But they have enjoyed a disproportionate influence up until now precisely because they are outspoken, vaguely unpredictable and popular with political journalists -- as well as with the president's Republican opponents.
While the senators who support Bradley are no doubt sincere in their dislike of both Clinton and Gore, that isn't quite enough to sustain a campaign for the presidency -- particularly not in a party whose voters are broadly supportive of the Clinton-Gore administration.
Gore himself seems to have finally grasped this reality, despite bad advice from his less-astute advisors earlier on. Ever since he stopped trying to run away from Clinton, accordingly, his poll numbers have risen steadily.
The vice president's huge victory in Iowa was a direct result of that change in tone. No doubt Bradley drew comfort from media complaints about the caucuses, which were suddenly dismissed as unrepresentative by certain pundits after he was clobbered there. But he would be better advised to ignore any such rationalizations for his poor performance in a state where he vastly outspent his opponent. The dedicated partisans who attend the cornfield caucuses may be more representative of the Democratic primary electorate than voters in New Hampshire, where independents can cast their votes in either party's contest.
For Bradley, there are serious dangers in the temptation to damage Gore with the embarrassments of the Clinton era. When he resorts to "negative" tactics, he exposes the hollowness of his claim that he is waging a "different kind of campaign." When he denounces the excesses of Democratic fund-raising in 1996, he opens himself to questions about his flirtation with an independent candidacy that year. When he echoes Republican-style attacks on Gore and Clinton, he evokes his own absence from his party's twilight struggle against the Gingrich "revolution."
No one should doubt that Bradley is an honorable man who feels passionately about the issues he says have inspired his decision to embark on an uphill campaign. Win or lose, therefore, he owes himself the dignity of a challenge based on those values -- rather than on old grudges against a president who will soon leave office anyway.