It was the last question at the last New Hampshire town meeting for Bill Bradley. On the afternoon before the primary, the former Democratic Senator and basketball star reached the Opera House in Derry, crowded with enthusiastic supporters. Opening the program, a local Democratic activist asked mournfully, “How did this party become the party of the lobbyists and special interests?” Cornel West, the Harvard professor/preacher/activist, revved up the crowd, declaring that there was “a new idealism stirring in the land.” Actor Ron Silver wowed the audience with a dramatic reading about personal choices. Then Bradley delivered his set speech in his customary seminarlike fashion. “Can we dream big dreams, or should we confine ourselves to small dreams?” he asked. By big dreams, he meant healthcare for all, ending child poverty, registering and licensing all handguns. To achieve those dreams, he said, it was crucial to enact campaign finance reform. He assailed “the old politics” of “a thousand attacks and a thousand promises.” He noted that newspaper editorials had criticized Al Gore for misrepresenting his record, and he wondered how a candidate who did not tell the truth could be trusted as President. But he didn’t dwell on his opponent. He asked his supporters to help him create “a world of possibilities guided by goodness that creates a new politics,” and he concluded, “I ask you to support me…only if you agree with the dream I have.” (Only?) After that came questions, the last one concerning high oil prices. Bradley pointed to remarks he had made during a debate, saying he would release oil from the strategic reserve. Please note, he added, that at that debate he refrained from attacking the Clinton/Gore Administration for not releasing any of the reserve: “Why politicize it?”
That was his final answer of the campaign: Why politicize it? Those words cover more than oil prices, for Bradley has waged a most unpoliticized insurgent campaign. In this tale of two reformers, the New Hampshire primary has rewarded a shoot-from-both-hips conservative reformer. John McCain, who humiliated George W. Bush 49-31 percent, had angrily asked audiences at overflowing town meetings, Don’t you feel ashamed when you hear your party will be accepting millions of dollars from Big Tobacco? A majority of voters in the Democratic primary didn’t endorse Bradley’s low-burn but high-minded assault on his party’s front-runner–although the 53-47 percent finish showed Bradley could give Gore some competition.
There are two ways to view the Democratic returns. Bradley spin: Bradley scored with a near-win, his campaign–which is well funded–is now a proven threat to Gore and politics-as-usual, and it can stomp the Vice President on March 7, when California, New York and fourteen other states hold primaries. Gore spin: As the Tennessee Titans will tell you, it counts only if you make it into the end zone. That is, if Bradley can’t win in New Hampshire, where independents outnumber Democrats, where can he win? The six-point Gore-Bradley spread settles nothing.
The McCain romp, however, signals that Bush is, as Bush père might say, in deep doo-doo. Bush is still sitting atop a Texas-sized heap of cash. But the South Carolina GOP primary on February 19 is now more than a firewall for Bush; it’s a lifeline. Luckily for him, the state is well suited for an establishment-led clampdown. But after such a pathetic showing in New Hampshire, Bush’s inevitability–one of his most praised assets–is looking like a dry well.
The Democratic finale didn’t resolve whether Bradley’s why-politicize-it strategy is a success. Maybe he would have fared better had he been more forceful in his attempt to dethrone Gore. Or was his reluctant campaign a hit with voters? Other politicians might have concluded that a challenger trying to oust a sitting Vice President would have to make a damn strong case against the incumbent. But Bradley, a born-again progressive, apparently assumes his grand ideas and his life story are enough to cause the party to reject its number-two. But there is no such thing as a polite coup. His teammates–Cornel West, Paul Wellstone, Bob Kerrey and Ernestine Bradley–all pushed him to go after Gore. “Paul and I try to get Bill worked up, and so does Cornel,” Kerrey said. “I’m going to stay with him until we kick Gore’s ass.” Bradley has made progress articulating why Gore is wrong for the party–the fundraising scandals of 1996, his credibility problem–but the advances are measured more in inches than feet.
Conveniently for Gore, Primary Day marked the longest economic expansion in US history. Times are particularly swell in New Hampshire, which leads the nation in percentage of high-tech jobs. At a state party fundraiser, Gore told Democratic regulars that the “heart” of his campaign was to “continue our prosperity.” The pumped-up audience cheered. Sure, he threw in obligatory comments about helping the less fortunate with healthcare and education initiatives. But his was a happy-days message. Bradley called on these party members to “face up to the fundraising scandals of 1996” and urged them not to celebrate but to apply the current prosperity to social problems. But he did not roar loud enough to rouse party loyalists from the natural default position. And by the time Bradley finally began complaining that Gore was misrepresenting his record and positions, the Gore campaign had concocted a devilishly clever retort: We’re just criticizing his ideas, but he’s going negative by calling us liars. Byhen, Bradley’s parries against Gore could be characterized as acts of desperation, anger or frustration–not the stuff of “new politics” or the necessary actions of an idealistic insurgent seeking to boot a tainted Vice President.
McCain’s in-your-smirk victory demonstrated that New Hampshire voters feel little loyalty toward the GOP establishment’s candidate of choice. McCain mostly steered clear of Republican Party events and focused on town meetings, where independent voters might feel more at home. Still, he did well with registered Republicans. In his stump speech he pronounced himself ready to lead on day one (a shot at Bush). He decried waste in the Pentagon and blamed pork-barrelers in Congress for it. He attacked corporate loopholes and the “iron triangle of big money, lobbyists and legislation.” Because McCain blasted Bush’s mammoth tax cut as a boon for the rich and peddled a more modest tax cut, his win is a kick in the teeth to the GOP’s supply-side tax gang. And, like Bradley, he argued that little is possible “unless we get big money out of Washington…. Governor Bush is out there raising money. I’m going to be out there raising hell.” (Bradley was raising heck.)
Meanwhile, Bush was raising love. He used the word more than any other candidate. At a high school in Hudson, he said, “We need to redouble our love for our children.” He did discuss issues: tort reform, free trade, his tax cut. He tried to persuade voters that he could be as strong a Commander in Chief as the other guy (no names, please). He passionately–perhaps more so than Bradley–spoke of “the gap of hope” between rich and poor. “I’m a uniter, not a divider,” he proclaimed. He’s a much better campaigner than a debater, and his love-drenched pitch appeared to hold promise. A Boston College student volunteer for Bush called him “a real live human being.”
But presented with an affable, well-connected and well-wired candidate with a popular mother and $70 million in backing, New Hampshire voters just said no. If McCain can demonstrate in South Carolina that this massacre was no fluke, the GOP is going to need a new playbook. It’s no secret that McCain, with his smash-the-special-interests rhetoric, is not highly regarded within the Republican establishment. Will the party empire attempt to strike back? How? Republican leaders may find themselves in the awkward position of having to make an uneasy peace with a fellow who crusades against the party on the basic issues of pork and money and politics. The contours of such a peace accord are hard to envision. And the Steve Forbes/Alan Keyes/Gary Bauer sideshow–an alternative-universe contest in which each attempted to prove he is the most fervent foe of abortion–suggested that abortion politics does not necessarily dictate Republican elections. The abortion-obsessed candidates collectively drew only one-fifth of the vote, and neither McCain nor Bush addresses the subject unless asked. (Let’s see if a desperate Bush changes that tactic in South Carolina.)
The primary results show the power–or usefulness–of a reform message. McCain did not win on reform alone. Audience members at his events appeared to draw a blank when he referred to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding certain campaign contribution limits. But his reform talk reinforced his rep as a no-nonsense, war hero maverick–and a fighter. Bradley, for his part, could not win on ideas alone. But his reform message brought him near to toppling Gore. The morning after the primary, Bradley said the campaign is “a fight about the kind of America we know we can become.” One question for the weeks ahead is, how much of a fight does he intend to wage?