How do you beat a sitting vice president in a presidential nomination contest? There’s no established game plan, because no one’s ever done it. It’s the sort of history Bill Bradley is aiming to make by challenging Al Gore. As his campaign has received positive reviews–mostly because of his fundraising prowess–Bradley has been pressing his case with his personal tale: Small-town Missouri boy becomes basketball hero becomes cerebral senator. (Gore has “been in federal government all his life,” Bradley jeers.) Bradley’s policy thrusts have been few; he promises more come fall. He has twice tried to strike in bold fashion. In June he proposed an antigun package that included measures surpassing those discussed in Congress, such as registration of all handguns. In July he delivered an impassioned speech at the National Press Club decrying big money in politics. But boasting tougher positions than Gore on lobbyists, guns and money won’t be enough to wrest the Democratic Party from Gore. How’s he going to win over traditional Democratic voters–unionists, African-Americans, enviros, pro-choice advocates, Clinton loyalists?
There are few, if any, major Democratic constituencies where Bradley starts with an advantage. Among African-Americans–20 to 25 percent of the Democratic primary electorate–Gore is quite popular, according to polls. In a recent survey conducted by David Bositis, a senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 69 percent of black respondents held a favorable impression of the Vice President; only 17 percent held an unfavorable one. Bradley registered favorably with 41 percent and unfavorably with 11 percent. “Bradley has no better record from the point of view of the black community than Gore does,” Bositis observes, “and due to his association with Bill Clinton, Gore is seen as having a better policy.” Bradley’s speeches declaring race the paramount issue in America do not resonate, Bositis says. “Bradley has done nothing except talk. And what is he best known for in his years in the Senate? The 1986 tax reform. I liked [Reagan Treasury Secretary turned Chief of Staff] Don Regan’s plan better than Bradley’s. Neither was populist, but Bradley’s made Regan’s plan worse from an income-distribution point of view.”
Sentiment in the Congressional Black Caucus is with Gore, according to caucus members’ aides. “I’ve talked to people within the caucus about Bradley’s race speech,” says one, “and no one thinks much of it.” Jesse Jackson, who has made no endorsement, is widely judged by Jackson-watchers to be leaning toward Gore.
Bradley is having difficulty vying with Gore for institutional labor support. During the years they overlapped in the Senate, Gore rated slightly higher on the AFL-CIO’s scorecard (88 to 84 percent). Both support free trade in a manner that irritates unions. “When Bradley was in the Senate, he was Mr. Free Trade, and the industrial unions hated him,” says a labor lawyer who witnessed clashes between Bradley and union officials. “There’s not enough of a difference between Gore and Bradley for labor leaders to turn against Gore. Many of them think they already have a relationship with Gore.”
In February Bradley spoke before leaders of the AFL-CIO. “He missed an opportunity,” says Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. “He did not make a clear and convincing case for what he believed in, what he would do if he were President and how he could win.” In May Bradley addressed an SEIU gathering and left a better impression. He emphasized that he’d been a union rep when he played basketball, and he discussed issues important to labor. “He made our members realize there was going to be a competitive primary,” Stern notes. Yet Gore, according to Stern, talked more than Bradley about policy and issues of interest to the union members. “It’s enormously hard to imagine at the [union] leadership level a Bradley endorsement,” Stern adds. “The interesting question is whether Bradley will connect with union members. Will his proposals in the fall seem significantly different from Gore’s?”
The debate among union honchos has not been Gore versus Bradley but when to endorse Gore. Some ask why not now? Others–especially the industrial trade unions that dislike the Clinton/Gore trade policies–are not yet ready to swallow that hard. “Bill Bradley is not a factor here,” notes an AFL-CIO official. “I’ve heard no one express any deep interest in Bradley.” Gore has pocketed several labor endorsements. The Communications Workers of America and the International Association of Firefighters declared their support. So did the Iowa chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME, is a die-hard Clinton/Gore booster.) The United Automobile Workers chapter in Iowa also endorsed Gore, but the national headquarters revoked the endorsement. (Bradley backers cited this as a positive omen, but the UAW leaders acted from concern that their prerogative had been usurped.) Most of the opposition within the AFL-CIO to an early endorsement of Gore is tactical, with union leaders arguing that the federation should hold out for a bone or two from the Clinton/Gore Administration in return for their seal of approval. That hasn’t stopped Bradley aides from hailing the delay in the AFL-CIO endorsement as proof that Bradley’s on the move.
Mark Smith, the president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, maintains that there are progressive unionists yearning for an alternative to Gore: “But I don’t see Bradley providing that at this point.” Referring to the closing of a major Sara Lee plant in Iowa–a move that will toss 625 people out of work–Smith exclaims with disgust, “Neither of them are dealing with this question.”
Eric Hauser, Bradley’s press secretary, argues that Bradley can be competitive within the labor and African-American communities. Why? Bradley has spent “a lot of time” talking with the SEIU, Hauser says, and African-Americans realize that race is “an essential issue for Bradley.” But, he adds, “we’re not trying to segment voting blocs. We’re trying to run on a higher level.”
Bradley’s record on choice and the environment is so close to Gore’s that he has no special claim in appealing to Democrats on those terms. “This Administration has been so supportive of reproductive rights,” says Julie Burton, executive director of Voters for Choice, “that you will find most pro-choice leaders unwilling to go against the status quo. But should Bradley win the nomination, the pro-choice community would not be unhappy.” Environmental advocates recall that Bradley had a very green voting record in the Senate, but they are not likely to flock to him over Gore. “We understand who the Vice President is, and he understands who we are,” says a senior environmental lobbyist. “You’re not going to attack a sitting vice president who’s done more for you than any other vice president. There won’t be a fight in the environmental community over this.”
In this pre-pre-season of presidential politics, Bradley may be faring best among Democratic activists and players worried about Gore’s chances in a matchup with George W. Bush. “Gore looks like a loser, so I’m helping Bill Bradley,” explains a prominent Democratic fundraiser. “But the Democratic primary electorate is still very much for Gore. For now Bradley is getting support from outside that group.”
Will Bradley, in the end, rely on the electability argument (he has a better shot at Bush than Gore) and his I’m-a-fuller-person-than-Gore sales pitch? Or might he take a shot at stirring up Democratic voters on the basis of policy differences with Gore? “There is a huge void that Bill can fill,” says Senator Paul Wellstone, who has endorsed Bradley. “Right now, Bill’s doing a lot of connecting with people, getting support less on issues and more on people liking him. Post-Labor Day, the question will be, how strong will he come out on mobilizing issues? Guns and campaign reform are not enough. I expect to see him take strong stands on kids and education, urban policy, healthcare and the right to organize.”
To succeed, Bradley will have to do an end run around the leaders of the traditional Democratic constituencies and the party itself–blow past them the way Gary Hart surprised former Vice President Walter Mondale in the early phases of the 1984 Democratic primary. Given Gore’s anticipated strength in the South and the fact that one-fifth of the convention delegates will be so-called superdelegates–elected officials and party leaders presumably loyal to Gore–Bradley will need a lot of force (votes, that is) to overcome the institutional obstacles. Mondale, it should be noted, did recover sufficiently to beat back the Hart threat–and Mondale was an out-of-office, uncharismatic number two to a failed President less popular than Bill Clinton. To have a prayer, Bradley–a wonkish, less-than-dynamic Democrat of mixed ideologies–is going to have to become an insurgent candidate, in style or substance, of historic caliber.