Theme Wars 2000 | The Nation


Theme Wars 2000

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Light-years ahead in money and contacts, Gore may have a lock on the Democratic nomination. But he still has to campaign--for appearance' sake. Thus, he needs a flag to wave while slogging toward coronation. His choice of an overarching theme is not without importance. It's one way in which he can step out on his own. "Being heir apparent is not enough," says a Democratic strategist. "There has to be a 'Gore perspective.' It can build on the Clinton presidency, but it has to include a new Gore take on things." Yet since Gore unveiled "practical idealism," it has not rocketed up the charts. In fact, in recent weeks, while Gore, in Clinton-like fashion, has unveiled one initiative after another--a "livability agenda," expanded empowerment zones, payments to hog farmers, more funds for civil rights enforcement--he has not deployed the phrase. According to a Washington Post article, Gore's key Wall Street supporters have advised him to pitch a more concrete notion: to boast that on his watch, a rip-roaring economy has enriched both Wall Street biggies and small investors. Their message: Forget idealism; it's money that matters. No doubt, theme-skirmishes will continue within Gore's camp. "Practical idealism" may be dispatched to the same file where Gore placed his environment-first passion.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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The second half of Gore's mystifying, nearly oxymoronic, phrase was perhaps designed with Bill Bradley in mind. The former Democratic senator from New Jersey and past basketball great has been positioning himself as Mr. Semi-Outsider, with values galore. That does contrast him with Gore, a bred-in-Washington longtimer splashed by the Clinton scandals. When Bradley announced in 1995 that he was leaving the Senate, he griped that "politics is broken." He blasted both parties--Republicans for their blind devotion to the market, and Democrats for their overreliance on bureaucratic government--and called for "thorough-going reform that will remove special interests from elections and reduce their influence on government." There was talk he was considering an antipolitics independent challenge to Clinton. But the insider-turned-insurgent never materialized. Running as a Democrat, Bradley has yet to boil down his message to a zippy catch phrase. Ask his press office why he should be chosen to supplant the sitting Vice President of his party, and they point to the "personal message" on his Web site. The short statement is apple-pie rhetoric. Bradley maintains he is seeking the presidency to "improve the opportunity for more Americans to live healthier, more economically secure, more personally fulfilling lives." He notes that 2.8 million children live in "deep poverty" and that quality healthcare is not available for all. But he presents neither proposals nor a framework for addressing these worries. Instead, he calls for affirming "the basic goodness of the American people." As for what distinguishes him as a candidate, he says, "I believe in a type of leadership that doesn't stand in the spotlight as much as call attention to millions of Americans who shine every day." He concludes, "Together we can be that good."

It's a riff off the Army motto, "Be all that you can be." There's no mention of broken politics or reform. He goes light on values. That's reserved for his fast-selling book, Values of the Game, a meditation on basketball and the success that arises from discipline, courage, respect and selflessness. "The society we live in glorifies individualism," Bradley writes. "Basketball teaches a different lesson: that untrammeled individualism destroys the chance for achieving victory." His bottom line: teamwork coupled with leadership that is modest but chock-full of character.

"Bradley has to run against the culture of Washington," says Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "He has to present himself as not part of the polarization and hope the mood in 2000 turns from the current partisanship to one of antipartisanship." Greenberg believes that transition is unlikely, that the bitter environment created by the impeachment drive will benefit Gore. "People ought to be tiring of the Bill Clinton presidency," Greenberg adds, "but with Democrats showing unity in the face of a partisan onslaught, it will be hard for any Democratic candidate to be discordant." Moreover, Bradley, who has a long reach into pockets on Wall Street and in the entertainment industry, will find it hard to rail against the system while collecting $20 million the old-fashioned way. (He has, though, eschewed money from political action committees and has not exploited campaign finance loopholes that other candidates have manipulated with gusto.) If Greenberg's reading of the Democratic constituency is correct--that it will be in a defend-Clinton mood--Bradley's teamwork-and-values message may not resonate, since his intent is to shove aside Clinton's good soldier.

The Democratic contest could end up no more than a narrow two-man face-off between a status-quo Washington veteran and an inside-outside roamer whose politics are not essentially different from those of his competitor. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, who has punched at Clintonomics, has been shying away from the race. Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, could marginally expand the race. A consistent advocate of campaign reform with strong foreign policy credentials--in the eighties he chased after the contra drug connection, Manuel Noriega, the shady BCCI bank--Kerry has not offered a fully cooked rationale for his candidacy. His most noticeable political move of the past year came with speeches in which he swiped at the teachers' unions--Democratic Party stalwarts--for standing in the way of education reform. Kerry, who could finance a campaign with his wife's fortune, appears to be constructing this message: "I may be a Democrat from liberal-land, but I'm tougher and more independent than Gore."

The more challenging theme-in-waiting belongs to Jesse Jackson. If he leaps into the race, Jackson can be expected to revive his cry for a wider sharing of America's wealth. But can he mount a populist, confrontational campaign, as he did in 1984 and 1988? During the past year, Jackson's most visible public project has been his defense of Clinton. In an ad in the Washington Post, he hailed the record of the President he considered opposing in 1996. His Clinton boosterism may have placed him in good graces among many Democrats, but can Jackson pull a switcheroo and campaign against Clinton's designated successor? If Clinton has done such a swell job, why not stay with his program?

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