Former senator Bill Bradley says he has a simple idea for rebuilding what he says is a badly frayed relationship between the White House and Congress: "Have a good idea and let 'em steal it."

The three-term legislator, who retired from the Senate in 1996 and is now seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a recent interview that he used that technique to pass major legislation, even when Republicans held the majority. And he offered it as his solution to a problem that has seen the opposing parties become "much more polarized" even in the period since he left Capitol Hill.

Bradley was the latest major presidential candidate interviewed by The Washington Post in a series of discussions prompted by the realization that, whatever their party or ideology, every recent president has found managing the relationship with Congress to be a difficult challenge.

"In my own case," Bradley said, "for 10 years I operated in a Senate that was Republican, and I did fine." The key to success, according to the former New York Knicks basketball star, is the willingness to share credit for victories.

As an example, Bradley cited "my biggest idea," the proposal that led to the tax reform law of 1986, in which hundreds of loopholes were closed and marginal tax rates were reduced in every bracket.

"It was 1982 when I introduced the first bill," he recalled, and the reaction among his colleagues and the press was deep skepticism. But two years later, when former vice president Walter F. Mondale was awaiting nomination to challenge President Ronald Reagan for the White House, Bradley had a well-publicized meeting with Mondale to discuss the plan.

"My going out to present this to Mondale was basically a setup to get Ronald Reagan to take it, if he were successful. I knew it was unlikely Mondale would take it, because he had been a Finance Committee member and thought it was impossible."

But the bait worked. Alarmed that Mondale would grab the tax issue, Reagan announced he would launch an intensive study of sweeping reform and make it the centerpiece of his second-term agenda. "Jim Baker was the one who was arguing not to let the Democrats get this tax issue," and when James A. Baker III became treasury secretary in the second term, he worked with Bradley and then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, another Democrat, to get it enacted. "Basically, it was a gift to Ronald Reagan," Bradley said.

The former New Jersey senator said the tone of the debate is also significant. "I think there is a level of civility that's important when you are trying to keep a middle together in a legislative process, and not turn it into simply two warring sides," he said.

As a senator, Bradley had a reputation for often operating on his own. When asked what skills he would bring to building coalitions, he replied, "I think congressmen and senators want to have their imprint on a piece of legislation. So a president should never send over a bill and say, 'Fellas, this is it,' and fight them on every change. He needs to say, 'This is my cut on it, and here are my nonnegotiable principles, but if you can come up with a better way, put your name on the amendment and do it.' In other words, you allow people to be contributors to the process."

Bradley said that part of letting others share the credit would mean a change in the White House press operations. "Instead of using the press office constantly to say, 'We did this, we did that,' as a way to project yourself, you would turn the cameras on those legislators and spotlight what they did to make the proposal better. That way, you would use your press office to support what you're trying to accomplish in the legislative arena."

The former senator also said his experience had taught him the importance of the White House "immediately servicing" requests from Capitol Hill. "The Reagan White House did that well," he said. "No call from Congress goes beyond a few hours, certainly a day, without a response from somebody who knows what they're doing."

Like several of the other contenders, Bradley said Reagan would be his model in another respect: using the campaign to create a mandate for early passage of major planks in his platform. "Quite frankly," he said, "Reagan knew what he wanted to do, so when he won by a sizable margin, even Democrats gave him the benefit of the doubt and gave him his program, because the people had spoken."

Bradley said he felt the power of the Reagan election mandate when he became "the sacrificial lamb" chosen by the Democratic leadership to respond to Reagan's closing television appeal for passage of his sweeping tax reductions. The Reagan plan passed easily, with Bradley one of the few dissenters.

"So part of governing lies in how you run the campaign--the clarity and specificity with which you state things," Bradley said. "That's what I'm trying to do in this campaign, for the purpose of being able to govern."

The Candidates and Congress

Every recent president has found that one of his most difficult challenges lies in managing his relationship with Congress. The Washington Post is interviewing the leading presidential candidates to hear their ideas for dealing with this part of the job.

Bradley in His Own Words

Q: What kind of situation do you think the next president will inherit when it comes to dealing with Congress?

A: I think it has become much more polarized even in the time [three years] since I was last there. It's infinitely different than it was when I came to the Senate [in 1978]. I think there needs to be a lot of work done to rebuild trust between the executive and legislative branches.

Q: Why do you think it's become more partisan? Is it that the personalities have changed or have the parties actually moved farther apart?

A: I think it's partly personality. Newt Gingrich was not exactly a Howard Baker. And I think his lightning rod, take-no-prisoners rise to power within his own party was premised upon a hard-edged conservatism. And naturally hard-edged conservatism is going to produce an equal and opposite reaction on the other [Democratic] side. And therefore the middle gets chewed away.

Q: So it's mostly personalities?

A: I also feel that the role of money is not insignificant here. You find parties are better able to channel money to help individual candidates through big soft-money contributions -- through the $20,000 or $25,000 contributions to campaign committees. So the campaign element of this plays a bigger role in the legislation. When you come down to a crucial vote, if you vote the other way [from your party], you might not get the money next time. And I think that contributes to making it an antagonistic campaign atmosphere, rather than a legislative atmosphere, where reasonable people try to find common ground.

Q: When did it begin to change?

A: I sensed something beginning to happen in the early 1990s, really, after the Bush-Dukakis race. The [Senate] Finance Committee became a different place. Russell Long, when he was chairman, managed to put together coalitions across party lines. By the time Lloyd Bentsen took over, the idea was to get all of your troops on one side and try to beat the other guys. . . . There were fewer cross-party coalitions. And that carried through the entire Senate, and the atmosphere became steadily more partisan leading up to 1994. And then when the Republicans took over in 1994, you know it was scorched-earth from that time on.