This presidential election–so far–is the tale of two establishments, one that held firm, one that started to crack and moved fast to hang tight. While Bill Bradley has not succeeded in storming the Castle of Gore–he handed out fact sheets rather than pitchforks–McCain sent a scare through Bushland. Both insider-insurgents defied their parties on an issue dear to party leaders: money in politics. But only McCain found traction and, more important, a critical mass of recruits for his crusade.

Given the sclerotic nature of US politics, it’s heartening that someone landed a punch on some part of the establishment. McCain may pocket big bucks from the corporate lobbyists he decries. His campaign may be loaded with GOP consultants who only lately have fallen in love with reform. He rides the Straight Talk express and double-speaks on the Confederate battle flag and abortion. (His so-called gaffes on these topics, however, suggest that he realizes the rebel flag insults African-Americans and that he is less dogmatic on abortion than his voting record shows.) Even though he fought Big Tobacco, he is no slouch of a conservative. (He embraced Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and opposed waiting periods for gun purchases; the Christian Coalition and the Chamber of Commerce rate him near perfect; he scores at the bottom of the League of Conservation Voters report card.) But McCain found a way to surprise the GOP establishment.

He rattled the party not by rallying the grassroots conservative movement, as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, but by shaking a fist at the money-changers. Being a former POW helped, no doubt, but credit McCain with more than a cinematic past. Bradley, a celebrity reformer with little passion, largely appealed to the self-motivated–reform-minded people who already give a damn. The mutinous McCain motivated Republicans, independents and Democrats to care about his campaign and join his cause. It may be personality or style–abetted by George W. Bush’s inadequacies–but McCain managed to put campaign finance reform at the front of the bus. Bradley couldn’t figure out how to do that.

How far is McCain willing to go? He has pledged to eschew soft money should he win the nomination. Anyone interested in reform should relish watching what happens if McCain gets into a position to cover that promise. How would the Democrats respond? (Bill Clinton is already raising millions of dollars in unrestricted soft money to fund law-skirting ads to help his party’s nominee.) And would such a move lead to civil war within the GOP, with the party and its House and Senate campaign committees shooting McCain the finger as they continue to raise hundreds of millions from their favorite sources?

Here’s another query for McCain: Does he care enough about reform to leave the party should he be vanquished by the Bush Empire? In South Carolina, where McCain snagged the endorsement of religious right activist Gary Bauer, the Bush backers showed they were willing to toss any bomb McCain’s way to stop him. He’s not a real Republican. He’s not a conservative. He’s not a reformer. He’s not pro-life. Bush even trotted out a copycat campaign finance reform plan. (A Bob Jones University professor e-mailed folks that McCain had fathered illegitimate children–he provided no proof.) The party establishment is trying to drive McCain out. In all-important California, party rules make it conceivable that McCain could attract more votes than Bush but lose all the delegates to him if Bush wins a majority of registered Republicans. Would that cause McCain to bail out of the GOP? The imploding Reform Party may not await, but might an independent bid?

Bradley is a victim of McCain’s success. Had McCain not been in the race, Bradley might have bagged some New Hampshire independents and, consequently, closed in on Gore. But Bradley’s also a victim of himself. (“If Bradley hadn’t been Bradley, he might have been dangerous,” says one Democratic consultant.) He offered the case against Gore with little zest. And after New Hampshire, for some odd reason, Bradley thought it best to attack the Al Gore of the early eighties. He blasted him for not being in favor of abortion rights when he served in the House two decades ago. With Gloria Steinem and NARAL rallying behind Gore, did Bradley expect pro-choice voters to abandon the Veep? Bradley dug up old Gore votes against gun-control legislation. But Democratic voters know that the Clinton/Gore Administration took aim against the NRA. Gore’s decades-old shifts on these issues–even if they confirm Bradley’s point that Gore wavers on the big issues–are not strong reasons for dethroning him.

Whenever Bradley vied for traditional Democratic support, Gore checked him. In search of African-American votes, Bradley went to South Carolina and assailed Republican candidates for squirming out of taking a position on flying the Confederate battle flag. About that time, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, via the Gore campaign, lashed out at Bradley for not co-sponsoring legislation to make the District of Columbia a state. Bradley tried to ride what he considered a better and more universal healthcare plan. Senator Ted Kennedy–the Democrats’ Mr. Healthcare–sided with Gore. Bradley opposed the don’t ask, don’t tell policy on gays in the military. Gore was endorsed by the gay rights lobby, Human Rights Campaign. This was the Democratic establishment at work.

Bradley refrained from boldly arguing that the party dump Gore. He never raised the issue of trade and globalization, which divides Democrats (he has no argument with Gore on that front). His jabs at the Clinton/Gore fundraising abuses were tentative. “From the beginning he didn’t give loyal Democrats strong reasons to vote for him over Gore,” says an angry and disappointed Bradley fundraiser. Senator Paul Wellstone, a Bradley ally, notes that Bradley’s only remaining shot is sparking “an all-out challenge on what the Democratic Party is all about,” with the volume “cranked up ten levels.” Wellstone concedes that “we have not been able to galvanize people the way we need to.”

Bradley chose a tougher mission than McCain. An establishment centered in the White House is harder to smash than one based at party HQ. Want to see a party and the system discomfited by a reform advocate? Root for McCain in his battle against Bush.