‘Dollar Bill’ Bucks the Odds


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.

To the right, Bradley’s vote produced a response that was nothing short of rapture. As Reagan pleaded with the American people to support the House version of the bill, he flacked Bradley’s name, while Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes Jr.— then deputy editor-in-chief at (sugar) daddy’s eponymous mag— proclaimed the senator from New Jersey presidential material, as he had now proved to be “a realist in foreign policy.” Fred Barnes (then at The New Republic) swooned over Bradley in a piece entitled “Run, Bill, Run!” declaring him a “liberal who can win.” The Nation, meanwhile, howled about how a “leading Democratic liberal” like Bradley could be so hypocritical.

But it was only the Bergen Record‘s Daniel Lazare who assessed the situation correctly, and his appraisal seems no less pertinent today. While Bradley is indeed “earnest and well-informed,” Lazare wrote, “he is not a liberal and never was, and is a member in good standing of the old Hubert Humphrey­Scoop Jackson ‘moderate’ wing of the Democratic Party.” That Bradley is “intellectual” and “thoughtful,” Lazare wrote, “merely makes him more dangerous.” While few are quite
so strident today— even though he’s not high on charisma, Bradley is a difficult guy not to like or respect— they nonetheless echo the sentiment. “The irony here,” sighs a Carter administration veteran, “is that every time he thought about something seriously, he came down on the wrong side.”

A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but not untoward. Case in point, as many progressives see it: trade. “He bought into the corporate agenda a long time ago, which, given his fundraising success to date, shows that clearly Wall Street sees him as someone they can count on to open up trade and investment opportunities around the world,” says Steve Hellinger of the Development Gap. And to Hellinger and others, this is why the Gore-Bradley face-off is so disappointing. On trade— perhaps the most important economic issue to the Democratic base— the candidates are virtually indistinguishable.

“Again, it’s only Pat Buchanan talking about these issues,” Hellinger laments. “Bradley is the antithesis of someone like David Bonior, who fought for the integration of labor rights and environmental concerns into NAFTA and fought against it when those provisions weren’t included. I don’t think he understands the realities of how the free-trade agenda works on the ground overseas, or appreciates just how debilitating those policies have been.”

One gets a sense of this reading Time Present, Time Past (as Bradley has held off detailed, substantive campaigning for months, his book is useful as an indicator of his positions). In discussing NAFTA, he hails former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari as a visionary, casts the driving issue behind NAFTA as merely one of jobs, glosses over the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, and sounds an optimistic note for the future. Completely absent is any mention of how the sainted Salinas brothers ravished Mexico’s treasury or how the institutions that profited the most from NAFTA and the Mexican bailout were investment houses like Salomon Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs— all of which just happen to be giving Bradley money in buckets.

Hope for the future of Mexico vis à vis NAFTA, Bradley writes, will come with mild democratic “reforms” of the Zedillo government. Yet, while banks were trumped as lenders by investment houses and fund managers, the price for that “investment” was a high peso to protect bond yields and a liberalization of foreign investment rules. That a reformist Mexican presidential candidate (later assassinated) so unsettled American investors that they pushed the Mexican economy into the tank— and then got the U.S. government to pay them back via a federal bailout package— doesn’t seem to jibe well with Bradley’s rambling vision of NAFTA as a device to “bridge the social and cultural gap.”

Indeed, when part-time or temp jobs comprise 30 percent of the workforce, married couples have to work 326 hours a year more to maintain 1979-level buying power, and the average starting wage is one-fifth lower than it was 20 years ago— and that’s on this side of the border— something rings hollow about Bradley’s prescriptions in Time Present, Time Past (even though he invokes the authors and figures that make progressives’ hearts beat fast). According to Benjamin Barber, director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University, this reflects where Bradley is right now: believing in civil society, though embracing its most malleable exposition.

Defining civil society as “not an alternative to democratic government but, rather, the free space in which democratic attitudes are cultivated and democratic behavior conditioned [and] an antidote to commercial selfishness and market incivility,” Barber has found a friend and ally in Bradley over the years: “He’s not one who pays lip service to the notion because it’s seemingly fashionable— he’s thought about it and has been genuinely active in trying to apply it to issues,” says Barber. But like most politicians, he adds, Bradley still clings to the “soft” vision of civil society. “What gets costly is identifying the adversaries and taking them on. The hard vision is, these institutions— particularly the private sector— have eroded what exists of civil society in dangerous ways, and you have to do something about it,” says Barber. “I don’t see either Gore or Bradley really speaking to that set of issues, and it makes both of them seem shrunken.”

It’s hard to speak to those issues when you’re depedent on corporate largesse, PACs or no, and in the past, Bradley’s had no shortage of private-sector financial support. In 1992, the Center for Responsive Politics crowned him “The King of Bundled Contributions” for netting approximately half a million dollars in individual contributions from the executives of nine major corporations or brokerage houses. And he’s always been one to look after corporate interests in his home state: though he could rightly claim credit for a major role in the 1986 tax bill that lowered rates and closed loopholes, he spent years protecting Section 936 of the Tax Code, which effectively allowed corporations (including many New Jersey­based pharmaceutical companies) to pay no taxes on products made in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t for nothing that The New York Times once said he was “widely viewed as the [pharmaceutical] industry’s most effective defender in Congress”: he also fought hard to save pharmaceutical giant Merck from paying $10 million in import fees and was successful in stopping a bill that sought to bar drug manufacturers from increasing prescription medication prices higher than the Consumer Price Index.

To most liberals, any Bradley campaign finance issues— be they help to constituent donors then or sources of funds now— are seen as small beer. “It’s an easy hypocrisy,” says Robert Borosage, “but it doesn’t bother me, because he wouldn’t be in the game if he wasn’t raising money. Though the question of ‘What’s the cost?’ is legitimate. You want someone who’s saying things and is committed to same-day voter registration and [campaign-
finance] reform, right-to-choose, better racial relations. But what about trade? He’s silent, and that’s a big deal. He made a commitment to Wellstone that he’d be for comprehensive health care. If he makes that a centerpiece of his campaign, that would be very impressive to more liberals. He has raised a lot of money on Wall Street. Having done that, if he can still find a way to talk about the global economy
and rules that work for working people . . . ” Borosage pauses. “That would be impressive. Then you would see people going, ‘This guy is a real alternative.’ ”

Nonetheless, Mr. Beatty, we’re ready for your screen test.