One man is the symbol of Wall Street power. The other rose to prominence as a grassroots hellraiser. One believes in top-down control of the economy and celebrates global capitalism. The other advocates populist economics and frets about the ravages of unchecked corporate might. One was responsible for extending a recession that threw millions of working-class Americans out of their jobs. The other advocates boosting the minimum wage and bemoans the plight of impoverished Americans. Both are backing Bill Bradley for President.
Within days of each other, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, and Senator Paul Wellstone, the progressive Democrat from Minnesota, endorsed the onetime senator and basketball star challenging Al Gore. With Wellstone, the fast-breaking Bradley campaign collected its first assist from a member of Congress. With Volcker, Bradley reinforced a point made by his better-than-expected campaign finance filings: Dollar Bill has friends in High Finance.
As teammates, Volcker and Wellstone make an odd couple. In 1979 Volcker was appointed Fed chairman by President Carter. Following a tight-money course to fight stagflation, Volcker raised interest rates, an act that arguably exacerbated and extended the painful recession of the early eighties. As millions suffered, Volcker would appear before Congressional committees, puff on a cigar and dismiss criticism. In 1983 President Reagan’s top advisers considered dumping him, having concluded that Volcker prolonged the recession more than they deemed necessary. But the Street and influential GOP senators, including Bob Dole, lobbied for Volcker, who was consequently reappointed. In 1987, Volcker was honored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
More recently, Volcker headed an investment firm. He also chaired a committee that conducted an audit to determine whether Swiss banks were sitting on accounts that once belonged to Holocaust victims. He has championed most-favored-nation status for China, and he has been a director of several transnational corporations. Currently–conspiracy theorists take note–he is co-chairman of the Trilateral Commission.
Volcker declared his support for Bradley at a $1,000-a-plate April fundraiser in New York. The former chairman of the secretive Fed explained he was “disturbed” about the public’s “corrosive cynicism” regarding government, and he hailed Bradley’s “willingness to take on the tough issues,” citing tax reform, race relations, global finance and technology. Afterward, Bradley praised Volcker for his “commitment to public service.”
Wellstone, explaining why he signed with Bradley, references a different agenda. “Bill Bradley has long been concerned with issues connecting race, gender, poverty and children,” Wellstone says. “I’m indignant over how the Administration and the Democratic Party have taken these issues off the table.” But there’s more that Wellstone fancies about Bradley. He notes that Bradley has demonstrated a commitment to political reform and has dared to speak about the need for healthcare reform. “I think he will campaign strongly on universal healthcare,” Wellstone remarks. The senator also admires Bradley’s leadership style. “I was at a conference in Michigan recently, and I was talking to students about politics. One student said, ‘I don’t know if I’m on the left. I might be more in the middle. But I just want to see a candidate who will let me dream again about my country and about how to make it a better place.’ I think Bill will connect in this way, with a politics of values.”
On the campaign trail, Bradley has proclaimed that it’s time for Big Ideas on race, poverty, healthcare and other matters. He has not, though, offered details. Wellstone acknowledges this and says he expects Bradley to fill in the outline after he completes the get-to-know-me phase of his campaign. “I think the ideas will be put out in concrete ways,” says Wellstone, “and they will represent some strong and progressive stands.” Conceding that in the past Bradley has devoted more attention to international finance than international labor, Wellstone notes that he may have “honest disagreements” with Bradley on globalization, but he believes Bradley will end up articulating “an agenda important to working people.”
What does it say about Bradley that he can attract a conservative pooh-bah of international finance and a progressive populist organizer? Coalition politics at its broadest or Bradley deftly playing the vague-game? Asked if he thought it strange that he and Volcker both would back Bradley, Wellstone offers a terse reply: “I guess this will be a big-tent campaign.” That sure is a tent with plenty of room–and one that might well require some very elastic material to remain standing.