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  •   Bill Bradley, Ready With An Agenda

    By George F. Will
    Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A23

    Bill Bradley answers the question without waiting for it to be asked, which it would not have been, because the question's premise is peculiar. The question is, Do you miss the Senate? ("Do you miss the hours, the company of other senators, the fund-raising, the committee meetings, the quorum calls, the campaigning, the mail, the press, the tedium?" Peculiar.) He says he misses the Senate the way he misses playing for the Knicks, which he misses only when the Knicks are in the NBA finals. That is, he misses the Senate only on rare occasions of high drama.

    Recently, when in Washington, he availed himself of a perquisite of ex-senators, use of the Senate gym, which was deserted, the senators all being embroiled in a budget-related dust-up on the floor. So he got on a Stairmaster, turned on C-SPAN and got a dose of deja vu by watching a wrangle about measures identical, or nearly so, to some he had debated over the years.

    After 18 years representing New Jersey, he has gone to earth at Stanford to recharge his batteries, rebuild his intellectual capital and perhaps occasionally contemplate a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, which would be more strenuous than playing NBA basketball. Well, says an interlocutor, not very helpfully, you could try what worked for McKinley in 1896, when he sat on his front porch in Canton, Ohio, greeting voters and making occasional pronouncements. With a faint, wintry smile Bradley responds that McKinley's front porch campaign presupposed Mark Hanna.

    When Bradley was a high school basketball star in Crystal City, Mo., a St. Louis reporter asked him to name his heroes. He named Billy Graham, Bob Pettit (star of the NBA's St. Louis Hawks) and Hanna, the Ohio political boss, Republican national chairman and pioneer of much that Bradley now deplores. In his 1996 memoir, "Time Present, Time Past," Bradley pays a tribute, of sorts, to Hanna, the Cleveland entrepreneur with insatiable appetites for hard candy and what today is called soft money.

    McKinley had Hanna, and Hanna had the railroads, which offered reduced-rate tickets that delivered crowds – 80,000 on one particularly busy day – to walk up Canton's North Market Street to the front porch. And New York banks coughed up campaign contributions of 0.25 percent of their capital. Bradley grudgingly admires how Hanna used the system, but Bradley brings unusual bluntness to seeking changes in today's system.

    He is to be praised more for having the courage of his convictions than for those convictions. He favors things that either the public disdains or the Supreme Court forbids.

    He advocates "voluntary taxpayer funding": The amount of money allocated to candidates from each state would depend on the amount raised in each state by a voluntary, nondeductible checkoff of up to $5,000 above their tax liability on their federal tax forms. "The money from the tax checkoff would go into a fund that, eight weeks before the general election, would be distributed equally to Republican, Democratic or qualified independent candidates. Candidates would have to live with what the people of their state gave them."

    That would be a pittance. Who would give, knowing that at least half of every volunteered dollar would go to a candidate opposed by the volunteering taxpayer? And Bradley favors amending the First Amendment to empower government to enforce limits on the giving and spending that finances the dissemination of political speech.

    Still, if current campaign finance controversies eventually provoke the public toward radicalism, Bradley is at least ready with an agenda. He is even more ready and plausible regarding what is more likely to be a large issue in 2000 – tax reform.

    One reason that in 1986 there were rate reductions financed by simplifications of the tax code is that Bradley pushed such a program in 1982. However, a possible rival for the next Democratic nomination, Rep. Dick Gephardt, has stolen the march on Bradley and others. Under Gephardt's proposal, 75 percent of Americans would pay no more than 10 percent of income in federal taxes, with a top rate of 34 percent, retaining few if any preferences, exemptions or deductions, other than the home mortgage interest deduction.

    What got Bradley elected to basketball's Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., was his creativity in moving without the ball. He is now without public office, but so were three of the last five elected presidents when elected (Nixon, Carter, Reagan). And events are conspiring to pass Bradley the ball in the form of public interest in two matters to which he has given intense attention.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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