Wednesday Bill Bradley showed that he is not too laconic to make official his amble -- let others run; he hungers without seeming to -- for the Democratic presidential nomination. Now begins a test of the political axiom that you cannot beat vanilla with French vanilla.
Al Gore is earnest and given to alarms, as about global warming and urban sprawl. Bradley is earnest, with details due this autumn.
So far, Bradley's timing has been as impeccable as might be expected from someone who once earned his living under the discipline of a 24-second clock. His announcement of his candidacy comes as a New Hampshire poll shows him virtually tied with Gore there.
Bradley, who was the subject of presidential talk as a Princeton undergraduate, says he now is "ready" to be president. This being the age of empathetic politics, he has come to empathize with Iowa's thirst for ethanol subsidies. In 1995, Sen. Bradley said it is "outrageous to consider a [tax] exemption for ethanol when its subsidy is already greater than the total selling price of other fuels." He now explains, "I was fighting for the interests of my state." A president must think of the nation, which, he evidently believes, needs something outrageous.
He speaks most earnestly about racial "reconciliation." As senator he supported modest school choice programs. Such programs are stunningly popular with inner-city black parents eager to rescue their children from public schools such as Cleveland's, which have failed to meet any of Ohio's 18 proficiency standards, which may explain why data from earlier in this decade showed that almost 40 percent of Cleveland public schoolteachers with school-age children were sending them to private schools.
As a presidential candidate, will Bradley be sympathetic to school choice programs? In the 1995-96 campaign cycle teachers' unions, which oppose such programs, are estimated to have spent at least $50 million on political campaigns, and at the Democratic National Convention, the teachers' caucus included 11 percent of the delegates -- a cohort larger than the largest state delegation (California's).
To the extent that regionalism still matters in this mobile and wired nation, Bradley is bucking a trend. In 2000 it will have been 40 years since the country elected a president (Kennedy) from the Northeast. Since 1964, when the choice was between a Texan and an Arizonan, all nine elections have been won by southerners or westerners (counting Nixon as a Californian). Republicans have nominated only one northerner, Ford, an accidental incumbent. Dukakis was the only northeasterner nominated by either party since 1960.
On health care, gun control, campaign finance reform and other matters, Bradley may amble to Gore's left, the locus of Democratic energy and restiveness. But the restiveness Gore must fear most will be among Democrats reading polls that show George W. Bush beating him handily.
Gore currently does well with "super delegates" to next summer's convention -- elected officials and other grandees who will comprise nearly 20 percent of the convention delegates, nearly 40 percent of the total needed to nominate. Their loyalty to Gore will vary inversely with Bush's lead over Gore, and if Bradley wins New Hampshire, thereby producing a protracted nominating contest, they can provide either man the margin of victory.
The chastening fact for candidates and political analysts is that familiar political certainties may need revising. Watch a few hours of television, and you will see a slew of advertisements for products and services that did not exist a decade ago. One reason for that fact is this: Half of all Americans aged 18 to 29, and half of all with household incomes of $75,000 or more, go online for information every day. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that in just the past two years high-tech industries in Texas have created more jobs than exist there in oil and gas extraction. Science and commerce have imparted far more direction and velocity to social change than politics ever has.
Never has America experienced five consecutive peacetime years of cheerful change comparable to the years since the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994. The Republican rhetoric of 1995 -- vows to abolish Cabinet departments and starve the beast of government -- now seems as archaic as the "free coinage of silver" rhetoric of 1895.
Conservatism, a doctrine of wariness and prudence, is about coping with scarcities -- of material resources and of virtue. With the nation's burst of wealth-creation promising a budget surplus, and with many indices of social health -- welfare caseloads, crime, illegitimacy, teen pregnancy and so on -- trending in the right directions, liberalism advocated in Bradley's low-voltage way may suit the hour.
Recently this column reported that the contract of Auburn's new football coach, Tommy Tuberville, contains incentive clauses pertaining only to athletic, not academic performance. In fact, it awards him a bonus if the team's graduation rate equals the NCAA student-athlete average, or a larger bonus if it equals Auburn's overall undergraduate average.