On the evening of Nov. 23, in a ritzy private residence on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a $1,000-a-head presidential fund-raiser will be held for Bill Bradley. That would not be news, save for the eyebrow-raising identity of the event's sponsor: David M. Smick.
His name is no household word for Democrats, but Republicans know Smick well. As chief of staff for Rep. Jack Kemp, he pressed the supply-side cause on Capitol Hill in the early 1980s. He advocated tax cuts in a 1984 GOP campaign for Congress from Maryland. In 1996, Washington-based consultant Smick was an adviser in Bob Dole's presidential campaign.
Why would a true-blue Republican back the Democratic challenger running to the left of front-running Vice President Al Gore? Bradley's feat is his ability to take the most liberal positions while attracting independent and moderate Republican support. That describes his strength in the New Hampshire primary, where he must defeat the vice president in his long-shot effort against the national Democratic machine.
Gore operatives float the theory that Republicans backing Bradley believe his expensive health care program makes him easy pickings in a general election. In truth, Republican politicians pray that he will not overtake the vice president. The GOP is frightened to death of Bill Bradley, because of such straws in the wind as the Smick defection.
The most obvious answer to why conservative Republican Smick is not supporting anointed Republican candidate George W. Bush is that Bush never asked him. But the governor would have had to do more than ask. The Smick-Bradley relationship goes back over a decade ago, when Bradley and Kemp co-chaired international monetary seminars arranged by Smick.
In his Oct. 21 solicitation letter, Smick talked of "Bill's ability to transcend traditional politics and to grapple intellectually with difficult issues" without "the mean-spirited partisanship which permeates today's Washington." Swiping at Bush, he added: "In the next decade, the most pressing issue likely to face the president will involve disputes over international economics, finance and trade. It is important we have a president who needs no tutoring."
Smick described to me an enthusiastic response to his mailing from financiers and business executives. But these were not Democrats solicited by Smick. They were conservatives and Republicans who had attended the Kemp-Bradley seminars, where Bradley's interest in international monetary reform impressed them.
That was the Bradley of '89. The Bradley of '99 does not seem interested in fixed vs. floating exchange rates. Nor does he talk much now about the issue that crowned his 18-year Senate career with the 1986 tax reform act. Interviewed on CNN last weekend, Bradley told Mark Shields and me that such an endeavor is no longer his priority.
He listed current priorities as health insurance, child poverty, economic growth and healing "the racial divide." But he maintained: "I believe that the best [tax] system is still the one with the lowest rates and the fewest loopholes." That's the old Bradley that pleases supply-siders.
Bradley admirers at a campaign event in Somersworth, N.H., last Friday night were not the tycoons solicited by Smick, but they too were attracted more to his aura than to his positions. I found many voters there who are independents undecided between Bradley and Republican Sen. John McCain (in New Hampshire, independents may vote in either primary, but not both), even though these two candidates agree on little other than campaign finance reform and tobacco taxes. The self-styled conservative voters may support Bradley, even after hearing him espouse liberal big government.
They explained to me that issues aside, they are comfortable with the prospect of Bradley in the Oval Office. Dave Smick said much the same thing. "I look for the best guy," he said. When I asked Bradley if his conservatives know something about him that I don't, he replied: "I think programs are important, but I think a judgment about the individual is the most important thing that people make when they're voting for this most personal of all offices." That's what makes Bradley a threat to Gore and, potentially, to Bush as well.
(c) 1999 Creators Syndicate Inc.