The vibe of Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles was weird, like "The Sixth Sense," with former Sen. Bill Bradley in the Bruce Willis role: Everybody on-screen seemed to know he was dead except for him.
As if to underscore the point, the Rev. Jesse Jackson dropped by the pressroom immediately before the debate began to announce his bold, out-on-a-limb endorsement of Vice President Al Gore, who leads by double digits in almost every one of the 16 states holding primaries March 7. Here in California, according to a Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday, Gore leads Bradley 54 percent to 11 percent.
While the pressroom zeitgeist was that the debate was a waste of time -- the New Yorker's Joe Klein joked that it was the first presidential debate he'd ever seen held after the campaign was over -- Bradley's presentation was serene. He didn't address Gore's past as a conservative congressman until the tail end of the 90-minute debate. He appeared calm and cool -- as a man at peace. Bradley is still convinced that when voters look at him, and then look at Gore, there shouldn't even be a question in their minds over who should be president.
When CNN's Jeff Greenfield brought up the "elephant in this room" -- i.e., that members of the Bradley press corps have all but taken out bets on when the candidate will withdraw -- Bradley said his lagging status isn't as bad as it seems. He trails Gore in delegates 41 to 27, he said. And only a few hundred thousand voters have cast their ballots so far, while Tuesday will bring 8.5 million to the polls. Then, he promised, his campaign will "take off."
Gore spent the evening agreeing with almost every single utterance from his opponent's mouth. He chatted up the insurgent on the other side of the aisle, Arizona Sen. John McCain, lauding his remarks earlier this week about the intolerance of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, as well as his stance on tobacco and campaign finance reform. He seemed eager to take on his political photographic negative and likely GOP opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, criticizing Bush for his controversial appearance at Bob Jones University and his stance on a number of social issues.
Since both Democratic candidates agree on almost every single policy question under the sun, there was little discord. Gay and lesbian rights, campaign finance reform, gun control, racial profiling -- both men are lifetime subscribers to Democratic dogma.
In fact, the harshest moment of the debate came when Greenfield pointed out that Bradley's and Gore's intolerance of race-baiting rhetoric seems awfully one-sided. Greenfield asked -- in language far more suitable for the CNN TV audience -- how the two could so easily decry Republicans on Bob Jones and the Confederate flag when their heads are squarely wedged up the nether regions of the Rev. Al Sharpton. In addition to libeling a prosecutor by accusing him of having raped Tawana Brawley, Sharpton has referred to Israel as "hell" and to Jews as "diamond merchants" and "little capitalist Zionists," and has contributed more than his share of ugly and hateful anti-white and anti-Semitic rhetoric to New York politics.
"Don't you have the obligation to be equally forthright" against Sharpton's hate? Greenfield asked. (Sharpton, it should be noted, even got to ask a question at the previous Democratic debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.)
Both Gore and Bradley said they condemned the language Sharpton had used in the past but were willing to give him a pass on it, since he's a voice and a force in New York politics. "In America we believe in redemption and the capacity of all of our people to transcend limitations they've made evident in their past," Gore said, before justifying his visit with the good reverend by saying it had been conducted cravenly, or, as he put it, "in private and not in public."
"I think he has grown," Bradley said. "We have to allow people the right to grow."
But Bradley wasn't so forgiving when it came to Gore's growth. After Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times coaxed him to explain the harsh negative attacks Bradley has been making in the past few weeks against Gore's history as a Southern conservative, Bradley argued that "when you run for president your public record is important. It defines who you are; it defines the fights you've made." Gore's sitting on the fence on abortion in the past, or his history of supporting the NRA, is OK, Bradley said. "He's evolved, and I'm glad he has evolved ... But I believe if you are consistent on matters of principle, that is relevant."
The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League had endorsed him, Gore said, pointing to NARAL President Kate Michelman in the audience. By endorsing Gore over Bradley (an odd move in a contested primary between two pro-choicers, especially considering Gore's "evolution" on the issue), NARAL may have won a friend in Gore, but it has lost credibility among reporters, not unlike what happened to the professional feminists who suddenly became tongue-tied during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
While Bob Jones University was on the table, Bradley decided to again bring up Gore's 1981 votes against the Internal Revenue Service's attempts to take away the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools. "Republicans are down at Bob Jones University preaching the old conservatism. And I guarantee you, we should be attacking them for that. But when we attack them, if you attack them for that, then they're going to come right back and point to those votes, and it's going to be a very difficult case to make."
Gore defended himself by characterizing those votes as being "against quotas," which he vowed to vote against again.
The difference between quotas and affirmative action is often in the eye of the beholder. Ralph Neas, past director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, once said that "the religious right tried to turn it into a quota issue, and it was not." The IRS commissioner during the period in question, Jerome Kurtz, has disputed Gore's version of the events of 1981.
But as if to warn Bradley not to go down the road of past votes, Gore -- after disputing Bradley's essentially accurate description of his votes -- ominously noted that he would gladly walk down the road of past votes if Bradley so desired. It was also in 1981, Gore said, that Bradley voted for Ronald Reagan's budget cuts.
Gore has generally held his fire on this vote of Bradley's, which eliminated $1.86 billion in food stamps; $1.26 billion from child nutrition programs; $1.12 billion from Aid to Families with Dependent Children; $1.01 billion from Medicaid; $221 million from the Legal Services Corporation; $513 million from civil service retirees' pensions; $394 million from military pensions; $1.9 billion from Social Security benefits, including $211 million in disability benefits; $774 million in student assistance; and $265 million in farm price supports, among other Draconian measures. At the time, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks, among others, said that the spending cuts would inflict "hardship, havoc, despair, pain and suffering" on African-Americans.
No doubt we'd hear more about this if Bradley were more of a threat. But he isn't, so Gore doesn't have to address the matter. (Forgive the gratuitous information, but I've been carrying those numbers around in my laptop for almost a year, and now seems as good a time as any for what journalists call a notebook dump.)
Bradley tried a few notebook dumps of his own, of sorts, after the two candidates were asked about the Internet and Gore joked that he "didn't invent it."
"I was waiting during the campaign of maybe being able to make that joke," Bradley said. "But since you made it first about the Internet, inventing the Internet, I'm glad you did it and not me."
At another odd and subtextual moment, Bradley talked up his support for a "hate crimes" bill and recalled a time when he promised that, were he and Bush their respective party's nominees, he would make it a major campaign issue.
"It will be an issue for the presidential campaign," Gore said, almost reassuringly.
At another point in the debate, he praised the contentious process of primary squabbling and how it helps candidates define themselves. As well he should. Gore is never so energized as when he has an opponent to fight; Bradley may be the best thing that has happened to him since he met his wife, Tipper.
Asked what their biggest mistakes were, Gore said that earlier in his career he was once such a workaholic that he didn't balance his life "enough by enriching [it] with joy and fun and family interaction ... I've long since learned ... that you've got to make time for your spouse, your kids and yourself."
In response to the same question, Bradley referred to his attitude in his first year in the NBA, which he sees now as "really a mistake to believe that you never fail. In other words, coming to terms with failure. And it took me a while to do that."