By Mollie Dickenson
January 29, 2000
Bill Bradley: Mr. Liberal?
When Bill Bradley entered the presidential race, he positioned himself to the left of Vice President Gore on a number of hot-button Democratic issues, especially health care and gun control.
The former New Jersey senator also took a strong stance on campaign finance reform, highlighting Gore's involvement in the fundraising excesses of 1996.
Bradley's unabashedly liberal positions quickly won him a constituency among left-of-center Democrats upset with the neo-liberalism of the Clinton-Gore administration. Many liked Bradley's call for a return to the "big ideas" of earlier Democratic presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson, in contrast to Bill Clinton's potpourri of modest reforms.
But other Democrats who knew Bradley in Congress groused about the ex-senator's claim to many of the liberal causes that are at the center of his campaign.
These Democrats suspected that Bradley's positioning was more political calculation than a sincere transformation. During his 18-year Senate career, Bradley was not identified with any of the major issues he is now touting.
"Al Gore has been there for us," commented liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the few senior Democrats who has addressed the "is-Bradley-liberal?" question publicly. "For whatever his reasons, Bill Bradley has not."
The point was made less directly when Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal stalwart, heartily endorsed Gore on Jan. 5 in New Hampshire. "No one has fought harder or been a stronger voice for our Democratic priorities than Al Gore," boomed Kennedy, referring to Gore's positions on health care, education, jobs and the environment.
Gore also has responded to the restless liberals by making strong declarations on controversial issues, such as gays serving openly in the military. He would have preferred running from the political center and giving the Republicans less of a target for 30-second attack ads in the fall.
The Democratic scrum over who's the truest liberal also has sent both campaigns scurrying back to examine the other guy's voting records.
The record shows that both Gore and Bradley crafted moderate-to-liberal Senate records, with New Jersey's Bradley receiving slightly higher liberal ratings than Tennessee's Gore.
Yet, on a number of key issues, Bradley sided with the Reagan administration. In 1981, Bradley supported President Reagan's budget cuts (though he opposed Reagan's sweeping tax cuts).
In 1986, Bradley cast the only Senate vote by a northeastern Democrat for resuming military aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. Reagan cited Bradley's contra vote in a nationally televised pro-contra address. (Gore opposed contra military aid.) Bradley also supported Reagan's costly "Star Wars" missile defense system.
Those controversial national security votes earned Bradley encouragement to run for president 12 years ago from pro-Reagan pundit Fred Barnes. In The New Republic, Barnes wrote that Democrats are "seen as wimps because they reflexively oppose the use of force. ... Bradley doesn't have this image problem. He has slipped free of it by backing contra aid and Star Wars." [TNR, Aug. 11, 1986]
During the Persian Gulf crisis in 1990-91, however, Bradley joined with liberal Democrats in opposing President Bush's request for authority to commit American troops to what turned out to be a popular 100-hour ground war against Iraq. (Gore broke party ranks and supported President Bush.)
Despite these differences, the candidates' Senate records have many similarities, with support for most issues associated with congressional Democrats. Both, however, built their reputations on issues outside the traditional Democratic social agenda.
Bradley and Gore made their biggest marks on largely technical issues that -- while important -- don't speed the heartbeats of rank-and-file party activists. Bradley's signature Senate cause was the 1986 tax bill that closed loopholes but was criticized by some well-to-do taxpayers for unfairly making the changes retroactive to 1981. Gore specialized in complex environmental and technology issues.
Though viewed as ancient history by some, these old Senate debates have continued to supply fodder for campaign 2000. Gore has hit Bradley's vote against a farm relief bill popular with Iowa voters while Bradley has denounced Gore's 1985 vote against a bill that would have raised the price of cigarettes. Also, using phrasing reminiscent of the bitter debates over the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, Bradley has referred to Gore supporters as "Gore-istas." [WP, Jan. 12, 2000]
But much of the anti-Bradley feeling among congressional Democrats stems from the more recent history of his passivity during the early years of the Clinton administration.
When Clinton tried to pass a comprehensive health reform package in 1993, Bradley folded his arms along the sidelines. When Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican congressional victory in 1994, Bradley called the outcome "a clear rejection of Bill Clinton, let's be honest about it."
Many liberals blamed the Democratic defeat more on entrenched congressional party leaders who had lost the fighting spirit, a demoralized group that many thought included Bradley. In 1994, there also was a powerful conservative backlash against Clinton's more liberal initiatives, such as his defeated health care initiative and his successful drive for the Brady gun-control law.
Republicans were pushing strongly, too, for aggressive investigations of Clinton over a variety of legal issues -- Whitewater, the Travel Office firings, Vincent Foster's suicide and the delivery of FBI files to the White House -- that subsequently turned out to be much ado about little.
Bradley was not seen as a Democrat ready to throw his body into the path of the hard-charging Republicans. Instead, the former basketball star headed for the showers.
Facing a tough re-election fight in 1996, Bradley retired from the Senate and took a job as a CBS News commentator. Most of his spots for the network were folksy chats, laid-back and reflective, not calls for substantive change in America.
Launching his underdog campaign for the Democratic nomination, however, Bradley reconstituted himself as a liberal ready to take on the entrenched interests of Washington.
He called for an expanded federal health insurance program, registration of handguns and elimination of soft-money contributions to the political parties.
Bradley explained his new commitment to these "big ideas" as a consequence of his listening tour that had solicited comments from average Americans. He won the endorsements of two outspoken liberals, Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., as well as two anti-Clinton Senate mavericks, Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.
On the campaign trail, Bradley also tried to transform criticism of his Senate retirement into a political plus. With Gore using the slogan "stay and fight," Bradley said Gore was stuck in the "Washington bunker" too long, battling the Gingrich Republicans rather than getting out to meet the people.
But Bradley's argument startled some liberals who considered the Clinton-Gore administration's resistance to the Gingrich "revolution" one of its finest hours. Gore hammered home this point.
"I want to tell you what we were doing in that Washington bunker," Gore told Bradley at a New Hampshire debate. "We've created 20 million new jobs, cut the welfare rolls in half, passed the toughest gun control in a generation and created the strongest economy in the history of the United States of America."
Whatever the outcome of Bradley's challenge, the Gore campaign fears that one sure result will be the depletion of Democratic coffers and the further tilting of the money advantage to the Republicans in the fall.
But Bradley still repudiated Gore's suggestion that they agree to avoid expensive television ads in favor of regular debates. Bradley earmarked $800,000 for ad buys in Iowa. Though Goreís offer clearly was a ploy, the idea resonated with some Democratic liberals who object to an expensive primary campaign that will force a greater reliance on wealthy contributors.
Still, some Democrats see a silver lining in this cloudy primary picture. As much as Bradley's criticism of Gore could haunt the vice president's campaign if he manages to win the nomination, they believe that Bradley has forced Gore to hone his message and streamline his campaign. Those are changes that Gore might not have made if Bradley had not scared Gore with a strong challenge.
If Gore also can avoid alienating too many mainstream voters, these hopeful Democrats say, he might just end up as a more formidable candidate in November.
Mollie Dickenson is the author of Thumbs Up, a biography of President Reaganís press secretary, James Brady.