Bill Bradley pounced on one of Vice President Gore's greatest vulnerabilities today, blaming "politicians inside the Beltway" for a money-driven political system that "undermines the very idea of democracy."
With the soothing cadence of a psalmist, Bradley used the scandals and investigations that accompanied the reelection of President Clinton and the vice president as a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington.
"Let's go back to 1996," Bradley said. "At that time, there were questions about where politics ended and government began in the Clinton-Gore fund-raising efforts. . . . Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. The more politicians talk about change, the more things stay the same."
The former New Jersey senator did not mention that the credibility of his own candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination was greatly enhanced by the fact that he had raised more than $19 million by Sept. 30.
When Bradley announced in 1996 that he would not run for reelection to the Senate, he lamented that "politics is broken." He echoed that today by declaring that "the very public fund-raising problems with both parties" had caused ordinary voters to feel ever more disconnected.
"Too many Americans feel that democracy today is like a broken thermostat--you turn the dial, but nothing happens," he said. "And it hurts me to say this, but often they're right."
Bradley then gave his prescription for overhauling the campaign finance system, from the current favorite of reformers--a ban on unlimited contributions of "soft money" to national party committees--to the politically untouchable idea of having taxpayers fund congressional races.
"Politicians believe you don't really care about this issue," he said. "They don't respect you enough to even hide their actions or pretend."
Bradley criticized Gore for his plan to stage official administration announcements around the country after the first round of primaries, so that he can travel at government expense and conserve campaign cash. Bradley said the plan appeared to be designed "so that Vice President Gore can finance his political campaign when his campaign funds run short."
In response to Bradley's remarks, Gore's campaign issued a statement saying, "Since Bill Bradley quit the Senate, he may not remember that Al Gore and this administration have been working for campaign finance reform and that Republicans, not Democrats, have blocked it."
It was a sensitive mission that brought Bradley to New Hampshire College, where in tribute to its roots as an accounting school the sports teams compete as "The Penmen." Some state polls show that the erosion in Gore's support has stopped, so Bradley's stepped-up criticism today was an effort to preserve his campaign's momentum. His advisers, however, say they worry that his image as an above-the-fray politician could be damaged if he stoops to name-calling. Several members of today's audience of 200 said they thought he got it just right.
"He's been holding his tongue," said Patricia L. Pine, 58, who came from her farm in nearby New Boston, N.H., to see Bradley. "He's inclined to just take the slings, and I admire him for that. At some point, you have to let people know you're not going to be walked on. That's important in a leader, too."
Bradley's proposals for overhauling the campaign finance system, which he announced in July and reiterated today, go far beyond the efforts that have repeatedly failed in Congress. "Money should come from only two sources--individuals in limited amounts in primaries, and in public financing," he said.
Bradley often says on the stump that health care for all is a fundamental Democratic principle, and has attacked Gore for abandoning it with his medical insurance proposal, which would be the less expensive of the two men's plans. Bradley picked up that theme today. "We need to put an end to big money in politics and restore people's trust in government," he said. "That is, I think, a core Democratic principle."
As a sign of what he considers the current administration's lack of commitment to tougher campaign money restrictions, Bradley pointed to the 1995 handshake agreement in New Hampshire between Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to work together on a reform plan. Bradley claimed that gesture had been accompanied by a tacit "agreement among politicians not to upset a system they use to their advantage."
"Just as the public commitment is about sound bites and photo ops," he said, "the secret commitment is about how business is really done in Washington, D.C., behind the curtain of special-interest money."
Bradley said he would bring a fresh start to campaign finance reform. "If people everywhere outside of Washington from Wall Street to Main Street want this, why can't politicians inside the Beltway respect them?" he asked. "It's time to give government back to all of the people, not just to those who write $100,000 checks."
CAPTION: Bill Bradley chats with a supporter after speaking at New Hampshire College in Manchester.