Bradley Challenges Democrats on Issues
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page A6
Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley (D) challenged Democrats last night to rise above "rhetorical flourishes" and "tiny demonstration projects" and prove to a cynical electorate that they care more about solving the country's biggest problems than the "mechanics of winning elections" and holding onto power.
In his first major speech since declaring his candidacy for president, Bradley said the Democratic Party must stand for much more than a thriving economy and proficiency in raising money and political spin control.
"A robust economy isn't an end to itself, it's a means to an end," Bradley said, according to a text prepared for delivery at a dinner in Richmond. "And that end is an America as strong morally and socially as it is economically."
In his speech, Bradley laid out the political themes and policy priorities likely to guide him as he challenges Vice President Gore and perhaps others for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Without directly criticizing either President Clinton or the vice president, he suggested that the Democratic Party had strayed from its historical commitments to social and economic justice for fear of offending voters.
"Political principle is tart in many mouths, but vagueness tastes like honey," Bradley said. "Compromise that offends no one and gives everyone something might help us win in the short term. But our party will cease to have any long-term meaning or content at all. If holding power is our greatest aspiration, we'll have broken a promise that we've made to ourselves and to our country."
Bradley said Democrats must recommit themselves to promoting racial unity, providing health insurance to all Americans, reducing persistent poverty among children and elevating the concerns of "hard-working parents" to a national priority – whatever the political risks.
The solutions to the country's biggest problems, he said, cannot be found in "either opposition to government or rhetorical flourishes followed by tiny demonstration projects. We need an honest conversation with the American people, even if it endangers our poll standing for a while."
Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 with a declaration that the political system was broken, said Democrats had contributed to the widespread disaffection toward politics that exists today. To reengage the electorate, he urged Democrats to make themselves "the party of campaign reform" and to take other steps to encourage greater citizen participation in politics.
Last night, he criticized both parties, saying the public sees them less as agents of reform and more as "vessels by which the poison of partisanship is injected into our politics."
But however successful Democrats have become with the mechanics of winning elections, Bradley said, they have fallen short. "As important as it is that we campaign smartly, matching the ingenuity of the other major party, this is not enough to make us a great party which can attract again, as it did earlier this century, the loyalties or respect or affections of millions of Americans."
Bradley's critique of the Democratic Party in the 1990s echoed the contention of others that the Clinton presidency has been too poll-driven and too invested in small but symbolic gestures designed more to attract votes than to solve problems.
"The cynics will tell you that we can't do anything about the big challenges facing us as a nation, that the days of big ideas are over, and that what the American people are looking for is someone who doesn't rock the boat," he said.
Bradley called on Democrats to "lead people back to politics as an honorable undertaking" and use their party organizations to foster mentoring and reading programs in their communities.
Saying there is more to life than "the pursuit of material wealth," Bradley said Democrats should not shrink from their historic principles and values.
"To lead, we cannot allow power to replace conviction," he said, adding, "Too often, we recite the mantra of the economy as if our only reason for being is making sure the books tally and the markets rally."
Timberg reported from Richmond, Balz from Washington.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company