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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

What kind of Democrats are they?

In the battle for the ideological heart of the party, Bradley's big-spending ideas put Gore in a box


TIME magazine

November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EST (1710 GMT)

Give Bill Bradley credit for this much: he has put a big idea on the table. Not the $65 billion plan to provide health insurance for just about everyone; not a social agenda extending full civil rights to gays; not even the plan he unveiled last week to devote $10 billion to address the "slow-motion national disaster" of child poverty. No, the big idea was the very idea of having a big idea.

In the twilight of Clintonism, amid the debris of divided government, the question Bradley boots up is this: Are we finally prosperous enough, generous enough, and above all trusting enough to ask the government to do anything that's big and important? And if not now, when? And if not government, working with churches and civic groups and businesses and individuals, then who? It is Bradley's challenge to every other candidate: Why should they not dare to dream heroic dreams? as Ronald Reagan once put it. And now it is their challenge to make the case that a big idea is not always a good idea. "Big and bold is fine," says an adviser to Al Gore. "Big and bold and unrealistic is not."

In an interview with TIME last week, Gore let fire: he charged that Bradley would destroy programs such as Medicaid, that he takes "an old-style approach [to poverty] that spends a lot of money but doesn't have any new ideas," and would bust the budget besides. "When people have the time to analyze what he is actually proposing," says Gore, "they're in for a real surprise."

At the dawn of Campaign 2000 it was the Republicans who were supposed to be host to a fight for the heart and soul of their party; and yet, as another candidate folded her bumper stickers last week, the G.O.P. has all but crowned a front runner who never misses a chance to be seen talking about compassion in a colorful sea of children. And even as George W. Bush drives in his big-tent poles all over the middle ground, it is Al Gore who finds himself locked in what looks like a real philosophical battle over the future of the Democratic Party with a challenger who casts a very long shadow.

A lot has changed since the last time the Democrats had a primary fight on their hands. In 1992 Bill Clinton challenged his party to scrap the philosophy that had lost five of the past six elections and get back in touch with mainstream values: work, family, personal responsibility, free markets, accountable government. When he tried to do something very big, like overhaul the entire health-care system, it yielded a fiery Republican Congress. By 1996, Bill Bradley had given up on politics and Bill Clinton had conceded that "the era of Big Government is over."

So now the budget is balanced, even running a surplus, and the welfare rolls are down and incomes are up and government spending represents a smaller share of GNP than at any time since 1974. And just when Al Gore finally gets his turn to bid for the job he has trained for his whole life, along comes Bradley as if to say, Thanks, Al, for this great economy, but I'm the only guy with the guts and imagination to know what to do with it.

The sizzling fight has every pundit arguing over who's really a liberal, who's a centrist, but a close look at their ideas suggests that the Bradley-Gore race is not a neat ideological battle. Virtually any proposal comes with a disclaimer, as Bradley's did last week. The principle that all families should have a chance for a better life, he said, "is not a liberal principle or a conservative one. It does not belong to any political party." So as Bradley and Gore prepare to meet this week for their first debate, voters will need to be listening very closely to figure out what kind of presidency these men are promising.

Both men have always defied pigeonholes. In the Senate, Gore was an environmentalist who knew everything about the MX missile; Bradley favored funding the Nicaraguan contras, but was against the Gulf War. These days, whether they are talking health care, education, crime or poverty, the instruments they use, for the most part, all come out of the New Democrat toolbox. Bradley has gone further left on gays, proposing that they should have all the legal and economic rights of marriage short of the title itself, and he's gone further on gun control, where he favors registering all handguns. But on most issues, he is mainly promising to spend more rather than spend differently. On health care, no one is proposing a government takeover of the system; Bradley's plan is more expensive, but it centers on giving people the money to buy private insurance. Likewise, his proposals to raise the minimum wage as well as funding for day-care and after-school programs and Head Start are all Clinton staples, proposed as far back as 1992 but never wrestled through a Republican Congress.

The similarity in their words, of course, helps explain the difference in their music. Bradley talks more about government responsibility and justice, Gore about personal responsibility and standards. Gore appeals to the party's sense of loyalty: Who was there to fight with you during the wars with the Gingrich Congress? Bradley appeals to the Democratic outsize dreams of the New Deal era: bigger is better. Both are trying to evoke a time when there were distinctions to be made because now there are so few.

And this is exactly where Bradley puts Gore in a box. Bradley dismisses Gore for his caution, and all but points to the centerfield fence as he steps up to the plate. "If we can muster the will and create the technology to put a man on the moon in a decade," he declared in his poverty speech last week, "then surely...we can eliminate child poverty as we know it." Bradley at times seems less proud of his actual proposals than his sheer willingness to make them: "I believe we have the methods," he said. "The question is, Do we have the will? the real issue."

All of which implies that Gore isn't brave enough or doesn't care enough about the poor to spend what it takes to help them. And in a way, this is a hopeless trap. Bradley may be making promises he can't keep, but Gore suffers if he pulls on a green eyeshade and starts sounding bloodless as he challenges Bradley's numbers and details. After all, Bradley says, Kennedy didn't know what kind of rocket fuel it would take to get to the moon; he just had the nerve to vow that we would get there somehow.

And how exactly is Gore supposed to argue with that? When he launched his campaign last summer, he promised to maintain the fiscal discipline that the Democrats finally embraced when they agreed to balance the budget. While he would dip into the projected surplus to pay for his own health-care and poverty programs, he is not as free-spending as Bradley, whose health-care plan alone could consume most of the non-Social Security surplus for the next 10 years. The minute he matches Bradley's wish list, however, Gore opens himself to attack from Bush for reverting to the days of tax-and-spend orthodoxy.

"He doesn't care about fiscal responsibility," says a Gore adviser about Bradley. "Nobody in the world will pass Bill Bradley's plan--nobody--because it will crowd out all other government spending, including education and military readiness." Economists note that if current government spending simply keeps pace with inflation, the surplus never appears at all. Well, says Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser, "flexibility is part of the final decisions. If economic conditions change, we'll bear that into account." And besides, Hauser adds, "The Gore campaign has no credibility to analyze anyone else's budget numbers when they have put a price tag on anything he's doing."

But for the Gore camp, Bradley's policies have "a Rip Van Winkle quality," in the words of an adviser. "It's like he somehow missed the last decade of political thought." Gore should be able to get up and say that the most effective antipoverty program in American history is the economy we've now got. Crime is down, welfare rolls are down, the budget is balanced, and child poverty is actually at its lowest level in 20 years. Do you really want to change tactics now?

There's just one problem: Gore can't make this argument, at least as long as Bradley is running ahead in New York and New Hampshire. He can't attack Bradley for being too leftist without annoying the party faithful he needs more than ever. Last week Gore scampered from one base camp to the next, promising to ban offshore oil drilling in Florida and California, making his own poverty speech, all quickly scheduled to share the headlines with Bradley's long-planned address. While Gore's speech was delivered in the language of personal responsibility--he would withhold federal funds from states that did not require deadbeat dads either to get a job and pay up or go to jail--the very fact that Gore is playing defense on core Democratic issues shows how Bradley has got under his skin.

At the same time, Bradley's poverty speech was notable for some things he didn't say. He has been an outspoken critic of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, arguing that forcing welfare mothers into the work force "cuts the bonds between mother and child" and that without subsidized child care and health coverage, too many could fall through the cracks. Yet in his speech, he did not call for a repeal of the time limits or work requirements. Gore seized on the omission. "He didn't propose to repeal it, did he?" he said to TIME. "It tells me that upon closer examination, he belatedly came to the conclusion that most every other American has come to, that welfare reform is working."

Bradley has the advantage of an expandable universe; voters are curious about the guy; they want to know more. There are the restless liberals who are attracted to his high-fiber programs; there are the Clinton haters who just want a change; and then there are those who don't blame Gore for Clinton's sins but who have decided in advance that he has no chance against Bush.This may be the peculiar core of Bradley support: mainly educated, independent male voters who helped launch the New Democrats in the first place, who don't care about loyalty and labels at all, and who really want to win.

Which means that Democrats next year will have a real choice. They just have to ask themselves the hard questions: Is fiscal discipline, and the buoyant economy that feeds it, now so much a part of the democratic bloodstream that voters will always watch the bottom line? Or are they more interested in where we go next than in what it took to get here, and are willing to trust that the dreamer will find the money somewhere to pay for all he wants to do?

--Reported by John F. Dickerson/Washington and Karen Tumulty with Gore


Cover Date: November 1, 1999

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