I worked closely with Al Gore in the first Clinton administration,
and I admire him. Gore is earnest and smart. For the past seven
and a half years he's taken on god-awful projects that no one else
wanted to do--like "reinventing government"--and has done them well.
He's been loyal to a fault. Contrary to his public persona, he has
a droll sense of humor that occasionally tips into deadpan sarcasm.
So why do I support Bill Bradley? And why do I continue to support
him, even when his boat seems to be sinking? Maybe it's because
I kept clean for Gene, passed out leaflets as a kid for Stevenson,
and would have voted for Wilson in 1912. I'm a sucker for decent,
smart, soft-spoken idealists with lofty visions about where the
country should go and what we can do together. For good or ill,
that description fits Bradley, not Gore.
Start with the issues. I'll spare you the wonky details about Bradley's
plans for health care, education, campaign finance, gun control,
and child poverty. Nobody wants to hear about them, which is part
of Bradley's problem. Yet his are by far the boldest and most ambitious
proposals put forward by any candidate in this election.
Bradley's health care plan has taken a lot of knocks from Gore,
but the criticisms are unfounded. Yes, the Bradley plan would end
Medicaid as a separate program. But the ill-fated Clinton-Gore health
plan of 1994 also folded Medicaid into a comprehensive system, which
is exactly what poor people need if they want to get jobs with better
wages and not worry about losing their coverage. Unlike the convoluted
plan of 1994, Bradley's proposal builds on the same system that
federal employees already use, and it provides subsidies to people
based on need. It covers almost everybody. By comparison, Gore's
new health care plan leaves most uninsured people between the ages
of 18 and 55 still uninsured.
Gore says that we can't afford Bradley's plan, that if we tried
to fund it we wouldn't have enough money left over to fix Medicare.
But, hell, if we could afford the universal health insurance that
Clinton and Gore were peddling in 1994, when the federal deficit
was still in the stratosphere, we can afford Bradley's proposal
now that we're enjoying unprecedented budget surpluses. The nation
is richer than it's ever been. If we can't get universal health
care now, when can we? Besides, there's greater urgency today. When
the Clinton-Gore plan was dreamed up, 39 million Americans lacked
health insurance. Now the number is 44 million and rising.
The only way we couldn't afford the Bradley plan would be if we
were to use a big chunk of the surplus to eliminate the federal
debt, as Clinton and Gore both want to do. But getting rid of the
national debt should not be a priority. As long as the debt doesn't
rise as a proportion of national product (and by that measure it's
been falling now for several years), the critical issue isn't how
large it is in absolute dollars but what the borrowed money is used
for. Borrowing to give Americans healthy bodies and our kids good
schools is a sound investment that is no less important to the nation's
future prosperity than a factory made slightly cheaper to build
because interest rates were driven lower by debt repayment. Clinton
talked this way in 1992. Bradley is talking this way now. Gore isn't.
Sure, there's a case to be made for paying down the debt temporarily
so we can add debt again years from now when baby-boomer retirees
begin to draw on Social Security and boomer bodies begin deteriorating
en masse. But productivity is rising so fast that the nation will
probably be able to take care of doddering boomers without adding
much debt. And besides, wealthy Americans are becoming so much wealthier
that a tiny wealth tax would suffice to cover the boomers even if
productivity gains didn't. (Lest he get blamed for this harebrained
Reich idea, Bradley has not suggested it.) The point is that we
can now afford to get on with the great unfinished agenda. We don't
have to settle for the Dick Morris policy miniatures that have been
the leitmotiv of Clinton and Gore since 1996--ideas that sound grand
but are wimpy relative to the scale of the problems they're supposed
to address. Nothing bold will happen after January 2001 unless a
Democratic candidate for president stirs public ambition during
the campaign and creates a mandate for it to happen.
Gore said the other day that he'd continue to pay down the debt
even when the economy slows, "just as a corporation has to cut expenses
if revenues fall off." He added that a recession should be viewed
as an opportunity to push cuts further "before any other options
are considered." This is worse than Reaganomics. It's Coolidgeomics.
"He should wash his mouth out with soap," Nobel laureate economist
Robert Solow told The Wall Street Journal when he heard this
statement. If Americans want to elect a president who believes the
debt must be eliminated at all costs, let them elect a Republican.
I promise you he'll be a one-termer. The economy will shrivel, and
the Dems will be back in the White House for at least the next eight
It's not just health care and the budget. Gore is to the right
of Bradley on almost every important issue. Bradley wants to hold
military spending where it is and give a big boost to education.
Gore wants to increase military spending by $127 billion over the
next decade--$12 billion more than the increase he proposes for
education. Bradley voted against the Republican welfare plan, which
Clinton ultimately signed. Gore was for it. (Before you conclude
that "welfare reform" was successful and Bradley's vote against
it was a mistake, watch what happens in the next recession when
there's no safety net for the unemployed poor.) Bradley has committed
himself to labor-law reforms like large penalties for employers
who fire workers for trying to form unions. Gore is vaguer about
labor reform. And so on.
Now, you may believe the nation should move further to the right.
Or you may be among those who believe Clinton has repositioned the
Democratic Party in the center and thereby breathed new life into
it. Both are respectable views in Democratic circles. But they ignore
the vast and growing party of nonvoters. Many of these people didn't
get much out of the 1990s boom. The median family income, adjusted
for inflation, is only slightly higher than it was ten years ago,
even though the median family is working a total of six weeks longer
every year. A Democrat can ignite these nonvoters' passions and
interests only with a large vision of what we can do together as
a nation, not with promises of teensy incremental improvements in
health care, weensy reforms of schools, military buildups, and debt
Why does the AFL-CIO
support Gore over Bradley? I suspect it's a matter of "the devil
you know...." Most union presidents have been in and around the
Clinton-Gore White House since January 1993. They haven't been delighted
with what it's brought them, but they'd rather stick with a sure
thing. And they've convinced themselves that, despite Gore's lukewarm
support of unions in the past and the dominance of anti-union Democratic
Leadership Council folk in Gore's inner circle, as president he'd
be more sympathetic to their cause than Bradley. I'm not so sure.
Last week Gore told the AFL-CIO
executive council that, if they succeeded this year in derailing
China's admission to the World Trade Organization, once he was elected
president he'd scrap the current agreement and negotiate a much
tougher one, including labor protections. But the very next day
he reassured Washington business lobbies that he was fully behind
the China trade deal the White House had negotiated. Union leaders
are winking at one another, thinking they know where Gore really
stands. Business leaders are winking at one another, too, thinking
they know. Is this clever politics on Gore's part or the kind of
slick double-talk that would quickly undermine confidence in a Gore
Lurking beneath all the substantive issues is the poison of money
in politics. Here, again, Bradley is a bolder reformer than Gore.
Bradley is calling not only for an end to soft money but for public
financing of election campaigns, including those for the House and
Senate. He's even proposing a two-to-one match of private donations
with public financing for presidential primaries. This goes way
beyond anything Gore, or even John McCain, has proposed.
Bradley isn't a sudden convert to campaign finance reform--despite
Gore's claim on "Meet the Press" a few weeks ago that Bradley "went
seventeen years in the United States Senate before he ever sponsored
a campaign finance reform bill." Quite the contrary: As a senator,
Bradley joined in sponsoring campaign finance reform bills in each
of six straight Congresses, from 1985 to 1996, including the main
campaign finance reform bills considered and acted on by the Senate.
In 1991 he was an original cosponsor of S.3, the only comprehensive
campaign finance reform bill to pass Congress in the last quarter-century,
which was vetoed by President George Bush. Then-Senator Gore did
not cosponsor this bill.
Indeed, Gore hasn't exactly distinguished himself on the subject
of campaign finance. Buddhist temples and "no controlling legal
authority" aside, he has some explaining to do about his role in
a more serious breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of the campaign
finance laws. Starting way before the 1996 general election, Clinton
and, presumably, his vice president oversaw the creation of "issue
ads" that beat up on Bob Dole and the Republicans. The ads were
developed and run by the same political consultants who designed
the official Clinton-Gore campaign ads. But, rather than being paid
for by the Clinton-Gore campaign, which had agreed to abide by spending
limits, the ads were funded with unregulated money from the Democratic
National Committee, which raked in about $1.5 million a week to
air them wherever they'd have the most impact.
Dole and the Republican National Committee didn't know what hit
them. By the time they woke up, it was too late. The Clinton-Gore
loophole not only helped the administration win the 1996 election
but thereafter established "soft money" as a slush fund for negative
political advertising. The Republicans are now fully intent on exploiting
the loophole this time around, to the tune of at least $200 million
if George W. Bush emerges as the likely nominee. That's roughly
twice what the Democratic National Committee can possibly pull in.
The only protection the Dems now have against the weapon Clinton
and Gore created in 1996 goes by the name of McCain, who has sworn
off soft money.
Some people say none of this really matters. This campaign is
about character, and the "new," feisty Gore is simply more appealing
than the rather impassive Bradley. Six months ago Gore was pedantic
and wooden, and his campaign was top-heavy with K Street lobbyists
and corporate public relations flacks. But, as the story goes, Gore
had the courage to change. He fired the flacks, moved his headquarters
from Washington to Nashville, and transformed himself into a hyperkinetic
dynamo. By contrast, although Bradley was hot several months ago,
his stolidity got boring. He didn't fight back hard enough against
Gore's attacks, he lost the expectations game in Iowa and New Hampshire,
and now the mantle of maverick reformer has shifted to McCain. And
Bradley still won't, or can't, remake himself into a winner.
So, by the new tautological logic of presidential "character,"
Bradley doesn't have what it takes. He's toast unless a miracle
happens: Gore slips on some bit of dung left over from the 1996
election, McCain fizzles and independents suddenly rediscover Bradley,
or Bradley himself emerges from a telephone booth as a new, supercharged
Bill--so fierce and fiery, so snappy and witty, so quick with mud
slings, barbs, zingers, ripostes, and repartees that he obliterates
Gore in upcoming debates, dazzles the press, and gets his face on
the front of every newsweekly in the country. In this post-Clintonian
world, success is character, character is success, and makeovers
create comeback kids--if they have enough will to come back in any
form that succeeds.
The ability to make oneself over into a winning personality isn't
the true test of character, however, and it shouldn't be the criterion
we use in deciding on the next president of the United States. Character
has to do with consistency, truth-telling, fidelity to principle,
and courage. These will be the qualities Americans seek next Election
Day. McCain's appeal is based on them, and, were he to emerge as
the Republican standard-bearer, the Democrats would be hard-pressed.
Which of the two Democratic candidates best measures up? To my mind,
REICH, secretary of labor in the first Clinton administration,
is University Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis
University and national editor of The American Prospect.
Copyright 2000, The New Republic