I am perplexed.
I am walking a vast and silken lawn asking people why they support Bill Bradley. The candidate himself is on the premises, raising even more money from people who have even more money to give. Bradley looks around, taking in the Gatsbyish splendor of it all -- the house, the lawn, the sea. He smiles. What a perfect setting to discuss one of his favorite subjects, he tells the crowd.
The lack of low-income housing.
It is a good line, and Bradley can be good in small gatherings. It is in more formal settings -- halls, auditoriums and the like -- that he can give the sort of speech that, if bottled, could bring him a fortune from desperate insomniacs. In those settings, the man is no Bill Clinton. Truth be told, in those settings, he's no Al Gore, either.
So I am perplexed and asking the same question over and over: Why do you favor Bradley over Gore?
He is honest, one person tells me. Yes, I respond, but so is Gore. I get nodding agreement. Yes, that's true.
Bradley is good on racial issues, another person says. Again I agree. But I have heard Bradley's speech on this subject, and he says -- if you're looking for programs -- not much. Instead, he attempts to set a tone, to advertise a concern, to show America's minorities that -- to cop a phrase -- he feels their pain. But so do the other guys. No one can possibly believe that Gore feels any differently.
And so it goes. Some people mention guns and others campaign financing. Yes, the candidates differ on these issues, but only at the margins. Bradley is Mr. Tax Policy. Gore is Mr. Ecology. Even on his Web page, Bradley has a hard time distinguishing himself from Gore -- some blather about how he grew up in a small town while Gore is a product of Washington. All true, but they are both moderate Democrats, about the only kind left anymore. One could be the other's vice president.
This is all really bad news for Gore. His tendency is always to study harder, to learn more, to become gooder and gooder. This, though, is not what people want. In the most recent polls, he trails George W. Bush 53 percent to 36 percent -- and not because anyone in America thinks Bush knows more than Gore about almost anything. Indeed, the Texas governor is breezing to his party's nomination with only the most tenuous hold on the issues, especially foreign policy. It's all Grecian to him.
No one questions Bradley's grasp of the issues, but that, it seems, is not what accounts for his support -- an amazing $11.5 million raised so far, only $6 million behind Gore himself. Instead, this most laconic of campaigners has emerged as the anti-Gore. Where Gore is specific, Bradley is general. Where Gore is wounded by the countless compromises of holding a real political office, Bradley is unscathed. Where Gore is driven by the timetables and agendas of others, Bradley plays by his own game clock. Besides, he says, responding to a question about how he is different from Gore, he has a personality. It was not a gracious remark.
But it drew a laugh and, maybe, if Gore were in the audience he would have acknowledged there was some truth to it. Just recently, Gore labeled himself an introvert. "I'm probably one of the most introverted people in public life, running for an office at this level," he said. This is sort of like a dancer saying he has no sense of rhythm.
The people assembled on the lawn here would have agreed with Gore's assessment of himself. Their attempts to distinguish Bradley from Gore on matters of policy struck me as rationalizations -- in part or in whole. It's not that policy did not matter to them or that some of them were not Bradley fans from way back (even from his days as a Knick), it's rather that they didn't like the introvert.
At one point, Bradley was asked if he wasn't really helping the Republicans by challenging Gore. No way, he replied, competition was good. Everyone would be better off in the end. It's the American way.
In fact, Bradley's challenge has prompted Gore's campaign organization to shape up. But Bradley has also revealed that Gore is a weak candidate. Maybe he'll improve. Still, the happiest warrior in the Democratic Party is not the odds-on favorite for the nomination but the man whose chief distinction for many is that he is the only alternative.