You really had to search for clues to the dynamic of the Democratic presidential race in the first televised question-and-answer session with Vice President Al Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, held Wednesday night at Dartmouth College.
What viewers who passed up the final game of the World Series saw was two tall men, one (Gore) well-tailored and the other (Bradley) in an ill-fitting suit, giving thoughtful answers to serious policy questions from a roomful of New Hampshire voters.
The shorthand descriptions of the contest that reporters had been using did not fit the reality of the evening. It was not Outsider Bradley vs. Insider Gore. The former New Jersey senator talked at least as much about his legislative initiatives in 18 years on Capitol Hill as Gore did about his work in more than two decades in Washington.
Nor was it New Democrat Gore vs. Old Democrat Bradley. Gore did argue that Bradley's health care plan would use up all the projected budget surplus and then some. But the vice president proposed enough new programs of his own that New Hampshire Republican Chairman Steve Duprey greeted reporters leaving the debate with a press release plausibly claiming that both men "spent the entire $1 trillion surplus in 60 minutes of national television."
Anyone who heard Gore's answer to a question about the pressures working families face would not conclude that he believes "the era of big government is over." He promised to legislate a higher minimum wage; expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has grown enormously in the past six years; broaden the Family and Medical Leave Act; improve subsidized child care and institute bigger after-school programs.
Listening to the two men promise bolder action on everything from the environment to Alzheimer's disease, hearing their passionate advocacy of gay rights, any listener would have to think that either of these men would be a more liberal president than Bill Clinton.
And speaking of Clinton, the assumption that Bradley would attempt to exploit the scandals of the president to Gore's disadvantage also proved to be wrong. Offered a set-up question on the financial improprieties of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, Bradley conspicuously passed. "I think there were obviously some irregularities that have been addressed," he said. But not a word escaped his lips about White House coffees, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, Chinese money or Buddhist temple fund-raisers. Rather, it was Gore who brought up the "disappointment and anger" he felt at the president's misbehavior.
In personal style, the differences were clearer. Bradley was, as usual, quiet almost to the point of diffidence, treating questioners with respect but seeking no intimacy. Gore worked much harder to make an impression. He came on stage with a head of steam and for 15 minutes before the telecast began he invited questions from the audience, dragging a reluctant-looking Bradley into the warm-up exercise.
But Gore never seems to know when to leave well enough alone. His efforts at humor fell flat, his inquiries about the questioners' families seemed contrived. When he tried to acknowledge his gaffe earlier this year in suggesting he had "invented the Internet," he couldn't refrain from bragging that he really had done a lot in Congress to make it a reality. At the end, when he thanked the voters of New Hampshire for the "great learning experience" of campaigning for their votes, he was almost a caricature of the pandering politician.
The most revealing moment drew almost no notice. Asked about leaders and leadership, Gore and Bradley each cited three role models. Gore's were utterly safe and predictable choices: Lincoln for his values, FDR for his powers of persuasion, Lyndon Johnson for the scope of his domestic agenda. No risk of offending with those names; and no originality.
Bradley chose differently: Jimmy Carter for his veracity; Woodrow Wilson for his farsightedness; Mikhail Gorbachev for his courage.
Those three men were visionaries. Wilson conceived of the League of Nations as a guarantor of international justice and peace. Carter imagined a nation committed to an ethic of energy conservation; a government with a much-simplified administrative structure; a tax system stripped of special-interest loopholes; and a reformed health care system. Gorbachev brought "perestroika" to the Soviet Union and spoke of a nation that would achieve parity with all the other industrial powers.
But that is an odd pantheon. It may not have occurred to Bradley--who identifies himself as a "big ideas" leader--that each of his role models overreached so badly that he very quickly lost the support of public opinion and his hold on power. All three were highly intelligent men whose ideas still resonate. But their failures dwarfed their accomplishments. Is there a cautionary message there?