The contrast between speeches given on Monday by Democratic presidential aspirants Bill Bradley and Al Gore was dramatic. Each set out to give his vision of leadership and his agenda, but as political documents, the two speeches were not in the same class.
Bradley, speaking in New Hampshire, was visionary, full of idealism and wonderful generalities. The election "is about the challenge of making the 21st century even more of an American century than the 20th. It's about how we strengthen ourselves as a nation -- by improving our health care system, our education system, and our capacity for justice -- so that we can move into this age of new possibilities as one people." He went over the well-plowed terrain of the technological and information revolutions that are making us "more connected and more isolated." He spoke of its capacity to democratize knowledge.
Then he listed the plans he has put forward to vastly expand health care coverage, to raise all American children out of poverty, to put 600,000 "great new teachers in our public schools," to register all handguns and "to help fight the disease of money in our politics." He listed the plans, but not the specifics. His speech was uplifting and full of hope, driven by the same sense of optimism he believes drives this country.
Gore's speech was also visionary and optimistic, but he was much more specific about what he wants to do and he seemed much more in touch with the daily lives of Americans. He made many more references to the needs of working families and repeatedly touched on issues that are near and dear to the hearts of women voters such as the pay gap between the earnings of men and women.
Women are the majority of voters in presidential elections now, and they were critical to the Democrats winning the White House in the last two elections. Any presidential candidate has to speak to them, but their power to give Democrats victories makes it even more important that Democrats address their concerns. Gore did this far more effectively than Bradley did.
Gore's speech showed he is well on his way to succeeding in the trickiest maneuver of his campaign: the two-step dance of first distancing himself from the personal flaws of President Clinton, then returning to embrace the political and economic triumphs of the administration. Deride Clinton all you want, it's now irrelevant. He has presided over the greatest prosperity this country has ever known. Gore is not only running on this record, but he also made it clear that the record surpluses are what are making his plans in a broad band of areas possible.
He jabbed at Bradley for retiring from the Senate and for saying it was paralyzed, while Gore and others stayed on to fight for Democratic programs -- and succeeded. "We replaced paralysis with progress," Gore said. It was a telling point, followed by a listing of some of the tough battles the administration has won with a ruinously partisan Republican Congress. These victories, secured one at a time, are even more impressive when listed together.
Gore muzzled his inner pit bull. When he attacked, he did so in a way that offered an alternative. He criticized all Republican presidential candidates for endorsing tax cuts for the wealthy that would squander the $1 trillion in surplus that he wants to use for education, Medicare and paying down the national debt. He said Bradley thinks we can tackle only one or two major challenges at a time, while he thinks we can tackle a number of essential goals.
The two candidates are drawing that distinction in leadership styles, but the world doesn't come at us that neatly. Their attraction to the distinction probably arises out of the fact that they agree on so many basics.
Gore outlined the economic fundamentals that have worked over the past seven years and said he intends to continue them. He offered a detailed education plan, from universal preschool to tax-free job training for adults, all items that have bread-and-butter impact on working families. He referred twice to helping family farmers. Granted, he was speaking in Iowa, with an eye to the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses, but his point has implications for all of us: America's farmers are taking a terrible beating and that is something that goes to the heart of our nation's security through our ability to feed ourselves. Bradley never mentioned farmers.
Gore never mentioned Clinton.
PBS NewsHour has been talking to people for the past six months to find out what is most important to them in this election. The results, released this week, in descending order of importance, are: campaign finance reform, health care reform, education, foreign policy issues, poverty and the wage gap, leadership and the budget. People responded with specifics, not generalities like: "the economy." That suggests they want candidates who will be specific and detailed about what they stand for and what they will try to do. We like vision and inspiration, but we are a supremely practical people.
People want to like Bill Bradley, but he can't win just by being Bill Bradley any more than Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to win just by being General Eisenhower. Even Ike had to go out and hustle to stave off Robert Taft for the nomination and then to beat Adlai Stevenson in the general election. By resolutely cleaving to an idealistic, almost apolitical campaign style, Bradley may have set the tone for a campaign he cannot win.
Gore won this battle of the speeches in a primary that has finally become interesting. He has emerged from the dark shadow of the Clinton scandal with a basket full of plans and economic goodies that any candidate would kill for. But however this fight plays out, the Democrats can be assured that they will have a serious nominee with substance, brains and guts.