THE CAMPAIGN for the Democratic presidential nomination has undergone an interesting inversion. Vice President Al Gore, normally thought of as a Washington policy wonk, has moved his campaign office to Nashville and promised a "rip-tootin' candidacy." Meanwhile, ex-senator Bill Bradley, famous partly for his basketball prowess, is giving speeches redolent of Washington's think-tank circuit. Mr. Bradley's approach seems to be working for now. The latest poll from New Hampshire puts him ahead of both Mr. Gore and George Bush, the Republican front-runner.
Mr. Bradley's latest speech, delivered in a school gym on Thursday in New Hampshire, deals with the stresses of working parents. This is a natural campaign theme: 13 million preschool children spend part of their day away from home; welfare reform cannot work without child-care subsidies for poor mothers; and the stress of even middle-class parents is genuine. But family stress presents a policy dilemma, too: Its causes are diffuse and local, so defining a federal role in combating them is difficult. The Clinton administration's response has been to offer micro-initiatives, notably legislation guaranteeing workers the right to occasional unpaid leave to tend to sick or needy children.
In launching his campaign last month, Mr. Bradley declared that government should "do fewer things, but they will be essential things," suggesting that he might forgo Clintonian micro-initiatives in order to conserve time and legislative energy for big priorities such as his health plan. Thursday's speech, however, was one of small ideas. A Bradley administration would spend $2 billion a year to improve the quality of child care by encouraging states to set up local boards to monitor the existing hodge-podge of preschool services. It would also spend $400 million annually to foster partnerships between community colleges and businesses: These are supposed to promote adult education. Mr. Bradley would provide $200 million to encourage retirees into voluntary work by offering small federal stipends. Finally, he echoes the Clinton administration's call for more generous family-leave provisions.
All these initiatives build on existing programs: North Carolina has pioneered local child-care boards; Texas (under Gov. Bush) has experimented with business-community college alliances; and so on. By recognizing promising experiments, and by promoting their imitation with modest federal grants, a Bradley presidency would be making good use of the bully pulpit. It would also be demonstrating, as has the current administration at its best, that there is a middle way between federal abdication in the face of big problems and prohibitively expensive federal intervention -- that "big ideas" aren't in every case the best ideas.