Strange Bedfellow

The Phony War

What’s behind the Bradley surge and the Gore stumble? Not much.

This is a season of refusal in American politics. The Clinton scandals, exhausted, refuse to revive themselves. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, anointed, refuses to campaign for president till summer arrives. Congress, terrified of Social Security, refuses to do anything at all.

Politics, too, abhors a vacuum, so Washington has concocted a story to fill the void: Bill Bradley, whose presidential campaign was written off just months ago, is surging, and Vice President Al Gore, the nominee presumptive, is in deep trouble. No matter that the New Hampshire primary is 10 months away. In recent weeks, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, many smaller papers, and all three newsweeklies have touted the viability of Bradley’s campaign and the messiness of Gore’s. Last Sunday, the great sage David Broder declared that Gore was struggling and conferred the mantle of electability on Bradley. Bradley’s numbers seem to be rising in the polls: One shows Bradley favored by 35 percent of Democratic voters, trailing Gore by only 17 points. (Other polls show Bradley in the 20s, trailing Gore by at least 25 points.)

Bradley is an impressive candidate, blessed with celebrity, thoughtfulness, and a good heart, and Gore can be an erratic campaigner. But the Bradley Surge and Gore Stumble have little to do with the candidates. We are witnessing one of the first fake battles of what the Progressive Policy Institute’s Will Marshall calls “the phony war” of the campaign. This is the period when voters are indifferent, and when journalists, Democratic candidates, and Republican troublemakers spin and position and jockey to write the script for the coming real campaign–in this case, a script that makes Bradley a white knight and Gore a looming disaster.

The first reason for the Bradley Surge is that Dollar Bill is proving himself a better fund-raiser than anyone expected. He collected $4.3 million in the first three months of the year, less than half what Gore raised, but more than enough to make him a legitimate candidate. His first fund-raising reports two weeks ago gave journalists an opening to laud him.

The Bradley surge also owes something to his fame. Bradley is the John McCain of the left, the politician who turns baby boomer men weak in the knees. His “Princeton, basketball, sense-of-where-you-are, Rhodes Scholar, New York Knick” mystique won him a free pass as the thinking man’s senator. This was only reinforced by his celebrated reluctance to run for president in 1988 and 1992 and his “politics is broken” retirement speech in 1996. His reputation as the politician too good for politics has been a key feature of the early adulatory campaign coverage.

But the most important reasons for Bradley’s supposed surge are independent of the candidate. Bradley has lucked into a one-on-one race. Besides serving as yet another useful basketball metaphor for Bradley–“I’m going one-on-one with Al Gore”–the two-man race gives Bradley instant viability. He’s automatically one gaffe away from the nomination. Political Washington is desperate for a Democratic horse race, but a horse race can only happen if Bradley is perceived to be strong, and he will only be perceived to be strong if everyone says he is.

The one-on-one campaign also explains Bradley’s apparent rise in the polls. As the only challenger, Bradley collects all the anti-Gore votes. Bradley’s numbers have climbed as pollsters dropped Richard Gephardt, Paul Wellstone, and Jesse Jackson from their surveys. “Fifty-two to 35 looks a lot better for Bradley than 52 to 13 to 12 to 10,” gripes a Gore staffer.

Bradley’s media boomlet also depends on Democratic anxiety about Gore. Gore trails both George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole in nationwide polls. More than 50 percent of one poll sample called Gore “boring.” Gore has become a kind of voodoo doll for Clinton: When the president is in trouble, his approval ratings remain high, but Gore’s numbers sag. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the vast majority of Americans are sick of the Clinton administration scandals, and they are taking out their frustration on Gore. “Americans want someone who continues Clinton’s policies and programs but who is not Clinton. Gore ought to fit that bill,” says Pew Director Andrew Kohut. “But somehow there is a link between Clinton and Gore that is hurting Gore.” Democrats feeling panicky over the Gore numbers are touting Bradley as the remedy: Every piece on Bradley emphasizes that he shares Gore’s moderate, thoughtful, New Democrat politics but isn’t handcuffed to Clinton.

R epublicans are doing their best to intensify this Democratic anxiety about the vice president. They are trying to Quaylize Gore. Republican house members, Republican senators, the Republican National Committee, and Republican interest groups have been assaulting Gore for the past few months, trying to turn him into a figure of fun. They have ridiculed his “creating the Internet” comment, his claim that he and Tipper were the model for Love Story, and his anecdotes about growing up as a farm boy.

The notion that Bradley is rising and Gore is falling can become true if everyone keeps declaring it so. But what’s more likely is that time and the natural course of campaigns will take their toll. Campaigns are self-correcting: If Bradley gets close enough to be a real challenge to Gore, he will be subject to the same withering fire that Gore faces. It will be pointed out again and again that Bradley is just as awkward a campaigner as Gore. Bradley, who has belittled Gore’s microproposals (sprawl, traffic, etc.), will see his own self-proclaimed “” questioned. As the plucky challenger, Bradley can campaign both to the left and right of Gore, picking up support from anti-Gore, pro-labor activists on one day and boosting his pro-business, pro-free-trade agenda to Wall Streeters a few days later. But if his campaign really prospers and he has to explain what he believes, he’ll have a hard time holding that coalition together. At the moment, Bradley can promote his support for campaign finance reform, but if he does well, he’ll be battered with questions about his own aggressive fund raising.

The progression of the campaign will also rescue Gore from his Vice Presidential Malaise. The Democratic fretfulness about Gore’s polls is premature: Vice presidents always poll terribly in the year before their presidential campaign. George Bush, you may remember, trailed Gary Hart in 1987 polls, and Newsweek even ran a cover story about Bush and “the wimp factor.” Gore has been Clinton’s lackey for more than six years. He’s loyal to his president, and that loyalty makes him look ineffectual. (George W. Bush kills Gore in poll questions about “leadership.” Bush is the manly governor of Texas, while Gore moderates Reinventing Government seminars.)

The cure for the phony war will be the real one. Come fall and winter, surges and stumbles will really mean something. By then Gore will be campaigning seriously, distancing himself from Clinton, and running macho ads; Bradley will have defined his big ideas and endured the inevitable media backlash to his current rave notices; and the voters will actually be paying attention.