'Dollar Bill' Bucks the Odds

The Great Liberal Hope from Wall Street

 Washington — The Democratic nomination would seem to be Al Gore's to blow. Despite his probable ascendency, however, the myriad missteps of the vice president's inept (and increasingly rightward-tilting) campaign— compared to Bill Bradley's plodding but vaguely inspiring bid— have given rise to a persistent notion: Gore's in danger of a liberal challenger overtaking him.

Yet it's difficult to find much enthusiasm for Bradley in liberal Washington. As a veteran Democratic lobbyist stirred his drink in a Washington bar, he looked positively lugubrious at the mention of Bradley's name. "He's a long way from being Jesse, that's for sure," he sighed, invoking the name of the Great Left Hope. "Gotta hand it to 'Dollar Bill' on fundraising, but an alternative to Gore?" A liberal member of Congress was considerably less circumspect: "Anyone who punctures this bullshit that Bill Bradley is a liberal is doing the Lord's work," he bellowed. A veteran of campaign-finance reform battles who functions less on enthusiasm and more out of inertia these days said in a monotone, "You can't convince me that someone who's raised so much money from Wall Street isn't going to be beholden to them afterward."

Yet Bradley is, as longtime liberal activist and scholar Robert Borosage puts it, "making liberals weak in the knees while they're getting queasy about Gore." Clinton Fatigue is real, and Gore's choice of lieutenants like the ethically ambiguous Tony Coelho or the morally dubious Carter Eskew (previous gig: PR for Big Tobacco) doesn't do a lot, in appearance or substance, to put Gore out of Clinton's orbit in the public mind. The gaffes (wasted-water canoeing, anyone?) have been humbling. Telling the UAW he's for labor rights and environmental protection only "when necessary" was seen by many as not only a slap in the face but brazenly taking the Democratic Party's core constituency for granted. His courting of the creationist vote further indicates an inclination to pursure centrist swing voters who will matter come November 2000.

Into this breach has stepped Bill Bradley, who, despite his legendary disdain for the base realities of politics, has nonetheless been operating like the shrewd hoops star he once was: moving to the open spot to take the shot— which, in the context of the Democratic Party, is to the left of Gore. On some issues, it's not that much of a stretch; while Gore is currently the actuarial beneficiary of Clinton's spiritual connection with blacks, Bradley clearly cares more about issues of race than Gore and gets the connection between race and economics (he was one of the few Democratic senators to futilely vote against the Clinton administration's draconian welfare "reform" package). He's no friend of the tobacco companies, holds forth on campaign finance reform with gusto, and to an extent even puts his money where his mouth is— no PAC donations for "Dollar Bill." He loves to talk Big Ideas.

Though there are those who see Bradley as "something different," or an in-house alternative whose appeal is rooted in being the antithesis of Clintonian character without being as saddled with sleaze as Gore, his candidacy is, nonetheless, simply another symptom of the ideological poverty and business-as-usual nature of American politics. While vaguely reassuring, he's no populist. He's more of a free trader than Gore, and enthusiastically backed NAFTA and GATT, which have done little for the average income earner. While Gore has been "a heartbeat away" from the president whose administration has been gracious to Manhattan's financial brokerage houses, Bradley truly is Wall Street's candidate; even without the PAC money, he's raised more from New York than Gore. (But then, this is nothing new, as this avatar of campaign finance reform outspent all his opponents about 20 to 1 before resigning from Congress, only to hit the money trail again in pursuit of the presidency.)

So why are bona fide liberals like Paul Wellstone— who disappointed the progressive wing when he announced he wouldn't run for president— throwing their support to Bradley, or hedging their support for Gore? According to many, it has less to do with genuine enthusiasm for Bradley, and they are inclined to believe that his nomination is a less-than- realistic possibility. Yet they see him as a way to "keep Gore honest," as one legislator put it: "He's the only potential way we have to remind Gore not to abandon the party's base."

While Bradley has embraced some elements of the progressive agenda, however, there are moments in his past that are troubling, especially when one looks to the future. Doubtless the next president will have to deal with the sticky issues of what to do about Colombia, where the line between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency is increasingly blurred in battle between leftist rebels underwritten by drug profits and a government corrupted by same. (A similar situation exists in Mexico.) While Bradley is universally regarded as contemplative, progressive foreign policy watchers remember what happened the last time he was cognitively deliberative about Southern Hemisphere matters.

Despite reams of documentation from human rights groups during the 1980s about the lethal and illicit actions of right-wing regimes and paramilitaries in Central America, Bradley— who modestly notes in his pre- presidential campaign memoir, Time Present, Time Past, that he "oversaw the [Nicaraguan] contra war for the [Senate Intelligence] committee"— nonetheless voted for a 1986 contra-aid package. His explanation was a masterpiece of equivocation: while he said at the time that he had "misgivings and reservations" about Reagan administration policy, he nonetheless asserted that "we know the Sandinistas will try to destabilize fledgling democracies in Central America." In the book, he also accurately notes a later apostasy, explaining that he reversed his position after "I saw that many of the recipients and much of the process had been corrupted by a lack of accountability." Yet at the time of his vote, most of his colleagues were incredulous that, as the Times's Anthony Lewis put it, "even a man as sensible as Bill Bradley" could vote for contra aid in the face of the facts ranging from human rights abuses to drug smuggling.

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