Bill Bradley has adopted a high-risk strategy in his battle for the Democratic nomination that depends on reawakening the public conscience to child poverty and poor health care instead of a more conventional political approach.
Bradley's determination to establish a larger purpose for his presidential bid emerges in almost every speech, including his address on child poverty Thursday at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. It underpins the absolutist character of his stands on such issues as gun control and gay rights--stands that go well to the left of Democratic political orthodoxy.
At a time of economic prosperity and when the country has been moving to the political center, it remains to be seen whether this will be a successful strategy against Vice President Gore or against a Republican opponent in the general election.
Bradley's campaign has no doubt. "His principles are his strategy," said Gina Glantz, Bradley's campaign manager. "I think if a candidate runs on his principles honestly and demonstrates what he believes in, that is a winning strategy. And I think we are seeing it."
In effect, Bradley is trying to use his campaign to revive the liberal spirit that animated the nation in the 1960s civil rights movement.
"In the 1960s, there was a multiracial coalition that was built around injustices. And those two injustices were segregation and African Americans being denied the right to vote," Bradley declared in his home town of Crystal City, Mo., the day after announcing his candidacy. "We are at a time where there is a chance for another multiracial coalition around the issue of children who are in poverty."
The pivotal event in Bradley's political development, he says, was watching the Senate enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prompted his personal realignment by abandoning the Republican Party of his parents to become a Democrat committed to racial equality.
"For me the quest for racial unity remains the defining moral issue of our time. It's the reason I first ran for public office," Bradley said. "I can still remember sitting in the Senate gallery as a college intern one hot June night in 1964 and watching the Civil Rights Act pass--the one that desegregated public accommodations--and thinking something happened here that made America a better place tonight for all Americans and maybe someday I can be here to help make America a better place."
While in agreement with many of Bradley's policy goals, Tad Devine, a strategist for Gore, questioned Bradley's strategy. "This is not to diminish his motivation," Devine said, but "to go out and suppose because you feel strongly about something then the nation feels strongly as well and will be moved by it, that is a great leap."
In his speech Thursday, Bradley disputed that view. "To move toward this goal in our own time we need leadership willing to tell us what we ought to hear, not what they think we want to hear. . . . We do not need a poll to tell us what is right or that we must reach out to poor children," he said.
So far, Bradley's approach to the 2000 nomination fight has proven far more successful than almost anyone would have predicted a year ago. He is fully competitive with Gore in the Northeast, including New Hampshire, where he is leading in polls to win the first primary in the nation. At the same time, what could be called Bradley's vision strategy carries a number of liabilities.
First, it poses a fundamental question for Bradley, one that Gore and his loyalists are raising with increasing frequency: If Bradley feels as strongly about issues of health care, gun control, gay rights and child poverty as he asserts, where was he during his 18 years in the Senate?
Bradley was not a key leader on any of these issues from 1979 through 1996. His current fervor makes it all the more difficult to explain both his votes for the budget cuts of 1981 and, more recently, his decision to leave the Senate in the face of Newt Gingrich's conservative revolution in 1995. This has become a favored subject for Gore, who has repeatedly been saying that a crucial test for presidential candidates is whether they "stand and fight."
Second, the intensity of Bradley's determination sometimes gives his campaign style and rhetoric a quality of moral righteousness similar to the campaigns of past Democratic nominees George S. McGovern and Michael S. Dukakis. In both cases, campaign styles that worked to win the nomination became significant hindrances in the general election. Bradley, with his calls for sacrifice in behalf of the poor, as opposed to stressing policies of economic growth, reflects what some Democratic critics call the "liberal root canal" message.
Third, Bradley's strong stands on certain controversial issues in some cases place him at odds with his most likely groups of supporters, and, as his positions become better known, he faces the danger of losing some of his base of support.
Bradley has taken stands on gay rights and gun control that win far more support from women than from men. In terms of his current voter support, however, Bradley gets much stronger backing from men, perhaps because of his history as a star forward for the New York Knicks, than from women. A Marist poll this month of New York voters found that men favored Bradley over Gore by 56 percent to 33 percent, but women favored Gore 48 percent to 29 percent. Men tend to oppose gay rights, and a higher percentage of men than women oppose gun control.
Bradley has laid out a strong liberal agenda on both these issues, calling for the addition of gays to the list of African Americans, Hispanics, women and other protected classes under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for the granting of all state benefits available to heterosexual married couples--health, tax, inheritance, property rights, insurance--to same-sex couples. "Where justice is concerned, no half-measures are acceptable," Bradley told the Human Rights Campaign on Oct. 2.
In the case of guns, Bradley has proposed required safety courses for handgun owners, licensing handgun ownership, an outright ban on "Saturday night specials," and limiting individuals to one gun purchase a month.
Bradley's $75 billion child health care and poverty initiatives, in turn, are substantially more redistributive than Gore's proposals. Bradley would redistribute federal taxes and spending by using the surplus to finance tax credits to the poor and working poor to pay for child health coverage, enlarge the earned income tax credit for low-income workers, expand Head Start, and boost spending on child care grants, food stamps and a host of other programs.
Bradley's support, however, is weakest among just those voters who would benefit from these programs, and strongest among those called upon to sacrifice to finance them, the affluent. The Marist poll, for example found that overall, Gore and Bradley were even in New York, but among those Democrats making $100,000 or more, Bradley led by a huge 64 percent to 17 percent.
Democratic policies of calling for a redistribution of tax burdens and spending benefits from the middle class and affluent to the working class and poor have faced hard times since the tax revolt of the late 1970s. Bradley appears undaunted by this history, contending in his speech Thursday that the moment is ripe for a renewed commitment to the poor. "At a time of great prosperity," he said, "I believe we have the wealth to eliminate child poverty as we know it."
CAPTION: Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley greets the crowd in Albany Saturday during a swing through New York, where support appears strong.