Frame Game

Bill Bradley’s Air Ball

Last week, announcing his candidacy for president, Bill Bradley compared politics to basketball, recalling his love of discipline, teamwork, and “the swish of the net.” Pundits ate up the speech. Paul Gigot called it “a character and ethics assault” on Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Fred Barnes applauded Bradley for “slam-dunking” the case against Gore. “It’s the best speech I’ve ever heard him give,” said Margaret Carlson. A video replay of the speech, however, shows that the swish was the sound of a jump shot missing the rim altogether. Bradley continues to think up new ways of saying nothing while making it look like something.

1.Leadership. A speech can set a direction, define an agenda, and explain what the candidate has done or would do. Instead of fulfilling these responsibilities, Bradley simply asserts that he has fulfilled or will fulfill them. He promises to act on his “convictions” but doesn’t say what they are. Rather than explain where America should go, he says he has “a strong sense of where America is and where we need to go.” Rather than define America’s role in the world, he pledges to “define more clearly America’s role in the world.” Rather than challenge his listeners or tell them where he plans to lead them, he says they deserve “leadership that respects the people as well as challenges them.” Rather than say what he would do, he promises, “There are two kinds of politicians: those who talk and promise, and those who listen and do. I know which one I am.”

2.Depth. Bradley, like George W. Bush, says prosperity isn’t enough. “What we need in America is a deeper prosperity … a prosperity that makes us feel rich inside as well as out,” he argues. “The leadership that is called for at this moment goes beyond a presidency, and into every home and heart. … A leadership that understands the people’s fears as well as their hopes.” By exuding profundity, Bradley shames those who wonder what it means to “feel rich inside,” and why this is more important than rising incomes and declining unemployment. The problem isn’t that Bradley’s message is empty. The problem is that you’re too shallow to understand it.

3.Immeasurability. “The Dow Jones is at record heights,” Bradley concedes, but “such numbers are not the measure of all things. They do not measure what is in our heads and our hearts. They do not measure a young girl’s smile or a little boy’s first handshake or a grandmother’s pride. They convey nothing about friendship or the self-fulfillment of helping a person in need. They tell us little about the magic of a good marriage or the satisfaction of a life led true to its own values.” As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg points out, these things have nothing to do with the presidency. But never mind. The point is that they can’t be “measured,” and therefore, no one can disprove Bradley’s suggestion that they’re lacking today and that his presidency would restore them.

4.Wholeness. Bradley speaks constantly of elusive wholes. “America should be made whole,” he says. He proposes to build “racial unity,” “confidence in our collective will,” and “a prosperity that adds up to more than the sum of all our possessions.” “A team is not just about winning,” he adds. “It’s about shared sacrifice; it’s about giving up something small for yourself in order to gain something large for everyone. It’s the same for our country.” What is the “something large”? What does “unity” entail? What does our “collective will” call for? Bradley doesn’t dwell on such coarse concerns. The point is wholeness itself.

5.Things. Lest anyone doubt Bradley’s substance, he touts his record of doing “things.” In the Senate, he “reached across party lines to get things done. I attempted to do big things without ever losing sight of the little things.” If elected, he’ll “do some of the big things that need to be done. … We will do fewer things, but they will be essential things, and we will do them more thoroughly.” And what exactly are these “large and essential things”? Bradley cites only one example: the Works Project Administration. How he would apply a Depression-era public jobs program to today’s roaring economy remains unclear.

6.Reality. To those who suspect him of empty idealism, Bradley asserts a firm grasp of “reality.” “Isn’t it just common sense that we make sure every child in America is covered by health care?” he asks. “Isn’t it just common sense that we protect our natural world from destruction, and do what it takes to achieve racial unity? Isn’t it common sense that all our schools should perform well, and that more Americans should do better economically? What others may call idealism is a common sense reality I know we can achieve.” How will Bradley realize these “realities”? He doesn’t say. The point is that he will “do what it takes.” Really. It’s just common sense.

7.Possibility. “The American Dream,” Bradley argues, “is not just an ideal to wish on. It should be a possibility available to all. … The renewal of the American Dream has to shine so bright that we can dream dreams we never thought possible before. … I want that hope, that encouragement, that sense of possibility to be a reality for everybody.” Since possibility can’t be measured, no one can disprove Bradley’s claim that the American Dream is impossible for too many people today, and no one can disprove him if he claims four years from now that he has made it possible again.

8.Poetry. Bradley relies heavily on metaphors. Americans should “be fixing our roof while the sun is shining,” he says. As president, he pledges to “set the table for future economic growth,” “put every American on the train of that deeper, broader prosperity,” and “urge Americans to bridge the divide of prejudice.” What any of this means is left to the imagination. As a child, Bradley recalls, he learned from his father that “character is where you find it.” As a senator, “I tried to help people where they lived their lives.” As president, he will “invest in our common future.” So, if you want a president who invests in the past, finds character where it isn’t, and helps people where they don’t live, vote for someone else.

9.Skepticism. “Our campaigns often end up doing the very opposite of what they intend,” Bradley laments. “Instead of engendering hope and optimism, they breed mistrust and cynicism. Just last week in Iowa, after I spoke about political involvement, once again making our nation better, a woman came up to me and said, ‘It all sounds so wonderful, if only it could be true.’ … Yes, the American people have a right to be skeptical. But I have a right to try to change that skepticism. … I am trying to run a different kind of presidential campaign. I’m calling us to renew our faith in each other.”

Skepticism, as Bradley defines it, is about whether a big-money political system will let his vision come “true.” This obscures a more sophisticated skepticism about whether he has a substantive vision to begin with, much less a serious plan to achieve it. Bradley isn’t asking us to overcome that skepticism. He’s asking us to overlook it. And by planting what looks like a bold idea–that the purpose of campaigning is to “engender optimism” and “renew our faith”–he erases his obligation to tell us how he would govern. Bradley’s campaign, it turns out, isn’t about the presidency. It’s about campaigning.

The pundits can’t believe Bradley has nothing to say. Some surmise that he’s cleverly waiting to unveil his platform. Others infer that he’s already mounting a brilliantly oblique attack on Gore. Both camps read insight into his every remark. If you don’t recognize his wisdom, you must not get what the election is about. Does Bradley get it? Don’t be a cynic. Ask not whether your candidate is worthy of you, but whether you are worthy of your candidate.