Bill Bradley, it turns out, is no day at the beach for liberals.
The Democratic challenger was always a quirky fellow, but now he is going to great lengths to show liberals who have been flocking to his cause that they must not count on him to respect their sensibilities. He greatly admires Republicans they deplore.
How about his consultant on foreign policy, Henry Kissinger, the celebrity secretary of state who kept the Vietnam War going for four years after Richard Nixon won the presidency by promising--vaguely, to be sure--to end it? It was an episode seared into the minds and hearts of the left. The country was torn apart. Does Bradley agree with the Kissingerian doctrine that morality has no place in foreign policy? Nobody wants to fight Vietnam all over again, but it would be nice to know.
In an October meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, Bradley pooh-poohed the notion that Kissinger was whispering in his ear his latest version of realpolitik--he is just one of several people Bradley consults, like another Republican, George Shultz. But two weeks ago, the Bradley campaign put out a list of Bradley advisers and Henry Kissinger was right there. Maybe Bradley doesn't feel free to talk to administration experts, thinking they belong to Vice President Gore, his rival.
The irony is that the campaign's other upstart, John McCain, also lists Kissinger as a foreign policy adviser. So if either of the two "new and different" candidates makes it to the Oval Office, we may be in for another siege with one of the most enduring icons of the establishment they are both trying to rock.
While the left was absorbing the Kissinger red flag, Bradley unfurled another. His role model as a presidential candidate, according to the New York Times? Ronald Reagan. "Focus," Bradley says approvingly. "Sunny optimism." Reagan won, of course, but there were times when it looked like a close thing. Reagan's intellectual horizons did not extend beyond Reader's Digest, which he was known to misquote a time or two. Toward the end of the campaign, a keeper was assigned, someone who would launder errant Reaganisms like his thoughts on "killer trees." Bradley has always liked to position himself above the battle, but liberals grumble that he can go too far. After all, it's a big country.
His challenge to Gore is now at a critical point. Gore has been relentless in attacking Bradley, hammering, needling, hectoring. Bradley has not deigned to respond. Gore has targeted Bradley's health plan, deriding it as impractical and unfeeling. Actually, Democrats don't mind the sweep of the Bradley scheme; the differences between him and Gore seem negotiable. Where Bradley has disappointed is in his cavalier approach to public schools. A commitment on schools comparable to the commitment on health care might go down very well. Everyone knows that a democracy has to have a sound public school system.
Bradley has been defensive on the subject. He keeps rationalizing his Senate votes for the voucher system, a ridiculous Republican plan which holds that "competition" for the decimated, inert public schools will be their salvation. Bradley cites Franklin Roosevelt's advocacy of vouchers. What is needed is a presidential commitment to resurrection. The cost will be astronomical. Teachers' salaries must be raised. Longer school days and special tutoring must be put into effect. The same no-ifs-ands-or-buts rhetoric that fired the rockets to the moon must come out of the White House.
Bradley brushed off Gore's negative blitzkrieg, which stopped Bradley's surge. But at the same time, they drove Gore's negatives up to a dangerous 42 percent.
Gore's war councils are taken up with the question of whether to continue to boo and bait the Olympian in the hope of luring him down from his high perch and making him look more like just another pol fighting for survival.
Gore started out virtually calling him a quitter for leaving the Senate in disillusionment in 1996. In a recent interview on PBS with Gwen Ifill, Gore said smarmily that Bradley needed to be persuaded to "throw caution and timidity to the wind." Gore wants his rival to forswear political commercials for the time leading up to the primary vote on Feb. 1. The reason is that Gore has squandered his war chest on greedy consultants who coach him on being himself; he can't afford TV ads. Gore's people say the "timid" charge is a return serve. Bradley used it first. But he applied it to a plan, not a man. And now should Bradley be less lofty, drop some Democratic names? Should Gore be less low? Bradley caught the Granite State's fancy with a brainy, perfectly tailored campaign. Gore started out way ahead because he could deliver the party. But they are both in the hands of Independents, who outnumber Democrats and Republicans in the state.