At the heart of the contest between Al Gore and Bill Bradley is the fundamental question of leadership. Is there any alternative to the strategy of incrementalism of the past seven years?
More than any presidential team since Jefferson and Madison, Clinton and Gore entered the White House with a carefully thought-out strategy of governance.
That approach has various names: consensus, moderation, gradualism, centrism: It is all of these. Practically it means hewing to the middle of the ideological and policy spectrum and making changes step by step through a multitude of closely circumscribed actions.
Today Gore not only represents the ideology of centrism, he went to school in it--indeed, he helped teach the course. The school was the Democratic Leadership Council, where Democrats hostile to liberal-left "extremists" hammered out centrist policies and tactics. The overreaction to the failure of the health care bill and other Clinton reform administration missteps reinforced their argument that reform must proceed slowly and piecemeal.
What leadership strategy could Bradley offer? He can't promise to outdo Clinton and Gore in their own tactics of centrist, transactional leadership; they are masters at it. Instead, Bradley--as in his health care program and other proposals--could position himself "a little left of center," as Franklin Roosevelt liked to say about the New Deal.
If history is any predictor, Bradley is likely to mobilize progressive elements that will, in turn, pull him even farther away from the center. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson all moved, in different ways, from the center to the center-left under pressure from liberals and reformers.
Despite all the talk about FDR's brilliant initiatives of the "First Hundred Days," they were philosophically all over the lot, averaging out to a centrist strategy on policy. It was only when Huey Long and Father Coughlin and other neo-populists mobilized millions of desperate Americans behind their panaceas that FDR moved decisively to the left in in the "Second New Deal" of 1935-1936.
Today we have no depression, but in our prosperity we have the continuing paradoxes of poverty--a widening income gap, failing public schools, deteriorating environments, inadequate health care for the poor and uninsured.
Gore can boast of hundreds of presidential and congressional acts leading to incremental progress. But the problem is not simply what he and Clinton have accomplished--it is what they have not accomplished given the enormousness of the problems we face.
What does produce transforming change? Take education. School uniforms? A hundred thousand new teachers for tens of millions of pupils? National testing?
These well-intended policy "bites" drop like pebbles in the immensity of the ocean. To rescue a badly failing public school system, we need an educational program as bold and generous and multi-dimensional as the great initiatives of the past, such as FDR's huge public works programs and Truman's Marshall Plan.
A breakthrough educational policy would of course deal with oversized classes, teachers' salaries, school construction security and standards, but also with less obvious problems--preschool education, pupils' mental and physical health, and language barriers. Above all, we need a systemic approach that recognizes the interdependence of all these issues.
Bradley could offer more than incrementalism. He could move beyond small achievements and tiny policy "bites" with daring proposals that get to the root causes of societal failures. To do this, he needs to demonstrate conviction and courage as both candidate and president.
Oddly, Bradley could learn from Ronald Reagan's example. Though biographers recently have expressed puzzlement about the "real Reagan," there actually is no mystery. Reagan was simply an old-fashioned, principled, committed conservative who stuck to his beliefs, campaigned as a conservative--despite charges that, like Barry Goldwater, he would ruin the party--won, and carried out his rightist policies to the best of his ability in the White House.
When historians tally up the century's "great" or "near-great" presidents, Roosevelt and Reagan will be among them; Clinton won't. Is there a lesson here for Bradley?
While incrementalists proceed step by step, history rushes forward. While centrists cautiously seek the middle way, leaders in science technology, education, entertainment, finance and the media pursue their own transforming visions. Isn't it time that politicians lead, too?
The writer is co-author, with Georgia Sorenson, of "Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation," due out next month.