Bill Bradley says he offers Big Ideas. Al Gore presents that as a cover for an ineffectual wonk -- an aloof figure who deserted politics and party in 1996, and who had spent 18 years in the Senate disdaining many of the battles that Democrats engaged in. "The presidency is not an academic exercise," Gore chided in Iowa on Monday. "It's not a seminar where you get to entertain a single grand theory." In Wednesday's New Hampshire debate, Gore recycled the same charge, just about verbatim.
Visionary or flake? Leader or self-indulgent theoretician? Anyone drawn to Bradley's ideas must also ask whether he would be good at implementing them. In this era of government gridlock, after all, a president needs considerable implementing skill just to get sub-Cabinet appointees accepted by the Senate.
Countless Clinton policies, from campaign finance to the nuclear test ban, have died at the implementing stage. The vacancy rate for Clinton administration posts requiring Senate confirmation frequently has exceeded 25 percent. Most notoriously of all, Clinton failed on health care reform. Why should anyone expect Bradley to do better against the lobbies and advocates and sundry other medigogues who wait to ambush him on that subject?
Bradley's critics look at his Senate career and see a lack of fighting spirit. The candidate who now deplores the plight of Americans without health care was absent from the struggle to fix the problem at the start of the Clinton administration. The candidate who now decries child poverty never did much to fight for food stamps or other remedies. During his years in the Senate, Bradley pushed for tax reform, Third World debt relief and an overhaul of western water laws. Eighteen years, three issues.
Hence this week's attack from Gore: "The presidency is a long, resolute, day-by-day fight for people -- on all the challenges they face in their daily lives," he declared. It is not, Gore seemed to imply, for philosopher-kings of Bradley's ilk. It is for two-fisted, head-cracking types who know how to make things happen.
Yet some of the people who worked with Bradley in his Senate days remember him differently. Dan Rostenkowski, the gruff ex-chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, recalls Bradley's drive on tax reform in richly flattering tones. During the lead-up to the passage of the 1986 act, Bradley popped up in Rosty's office nearly every day; he was so smart and steeped in the details that he could have passed for a staff expert.
What's more, Bradley demonstrated political skill as well as wonkish grasp. In the last stages of the tax fight, it was Bradley who thought up a gimmick known as the "bubble," which made marginal rates look lower than they really were and thereby secured the bill's passage.
Rostenkowski recalled those days at a meeting this week at the American Enterprise Institute, which also featured Rep. George Miller of California. Miller, who is now firmly in the Bradley camp, recounted the candidate's work on water reform. Before the late 1980s, when Bradley took this subject on, most senators shrank from picking a fight with the landowners who hogged much of the West's water.
But as with the tax issue, Bradley mastered the subject's arcane details. He built a coalition for reform between environmentalists and business groups. And, once again, he proved he knew how to get things done in Congress. He figured out a way of subduing opponents of reform by holding hostage projects that they wanted. When it looked as though his bill would be stuck in a House committee, Bradley came up with a scheme to drop parts of the reform, knowing that they could be restored later in conference.
To be fair, Bradley suffered his share of congressional defeats, and Gore is raising a reasonable question. Any candidate who refuses to tell reporters what books he reads deserves to be called aloof. Anyone who resorts to Bradley's sometimes waffly speaking style may be suspected of being ineffectual. At one point in Wednesday's debate Bradley declared, "We can only go forward by leaving no one behind. Then we can bring everybody together. That is a reality. That's why leadership is required in this country." Go figure.
But the real question about Bradley is not whether he can get things done but whether his stock of Big Ideas is really as big as it ought to be. On poverty and health care, he has been bold. But despite being something of a trade expert, he had little to say on the subject when the Seattle summit plummeted. And he has yet to make a serious speech on foreign policy.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.