Candidates Who Don’t Care

Part of the appeal of both George W. Bush and Bill Bradley as candidates for president is that they don’t seem to want it all that badly. Americans are suckers for the myth of Cincinnatus: the leader who accepts power only reluctantly.

Of course no one really runs for president out of humility. Our election process is so arduous, and the odds of triumph are so low, that no one would endure it except out of some combination of self-obsession and self-delusion. Certainly the leading candidates (except Pat Buchanan) aren’t motivated by ideology. They may have positions–they certainly have position papers–and they may even have beliefs, but these can’t be what they’re in it for.

Still, seeming not to want it desperately is useful, and especially important to Bush and Bradley. In George W.’s case, it’s part of his jovial laid-back image. A generation further along, the Bushes are either actually getting less patrician or they’re getting better at faking it. No self-conscious babbling about pork rinds from George W. He’s just a regular fella who’d rather watch football on the tube than discuss policy any day. It’s “Message: I don’t care” turned into a plus.

For Bradley, the appeal is almost exactly the opposite. He gives his enthusiasts the impression of being almost too thoughtful to be president. Like Gary Hart of yore, he is the candidate of ideas (although, also like Hart, it is more the idea of ideas than any particular ideas themselves). In 1992, Bradley didn’t run, though his party begged him to, because his inner clock wasn’t ready. Bill Clinton, whose clock is always ready, ran and won. I think this speaks well for Clinton and poorly for Bradley, but many disagree. They feel it shows that Bradley is not just another scheming pol. Because he’s not desperate to win, and because he’s thoughtful, he can speak the truth.

These amorphous impressions are important to Bradley because one important truth neither he nor Al Gore is emphasizing at the moment–and neither is the press, for obvious reasons–is that they are remarkably similar. Both are moderate Democrats (though Bradley is feinting left at the moment). Both are former senators. Both are in their 50s. Both are tall and regarded as stiff and dull. Both are from privileged backgrounds, which both–in honor of another bit of democratic sentimentality–are trying to disown (Gore by emphasizing the Tennessee aspect over the Washington aspect of his childhood as a senator’s son; Bradley by making a big deal about growing up in a small town where–as he doesn’t emphasize–his father was president of a bank). Both also have had privileged political careers, floating into the Senate on celebrity or lineage, and both seem better suited to being selected by boards of admiring elders than to the grungy business of running for office.

So Bradley must treasure and promote the idea that he is the no-bullshit outsider running against “the vice president,” as he always refers to Gore. A reputation for honesty is useful, if not essential, to any politician–especially in this post-Clinton election–but for Bradley it’s vital. If he’s not the truth-teller, he’s got little to offer. With that in mind, what do you make of the following exchange on Larry King Live last week?

KING: OK. The switch on ethanol, which you once called highway robbery, was this political for Iowa?

BRADLEY: You know, I represented New Jersey, tried to do the best job I could. The ethanol subsidy meant New Jersey taxpayers paid higher tax for their gasoline. It also meant that it was more difficult for us to meet our clean air standards. That’s why I oppose it. I also didn’t like the fact that two-thirds of the benefit went to one corporation. I didn’t support corporate welfare.

And that was when I was a United States senator from New Jersey. I am now running for president of the United States. Part of running for president of the United States is getting to know the country in a depth that you didn’t before. Agricultural economics I didn’t know much about.

I spent a lot of time talking to Iowa farmers since January. And the problem and crisis in the family farm is real. And I sat with enough of them to know that the ethanol part of their overall cost statement was an important part, and therefore, I believe that it was a reasonable thing to do.

KING: Were you wrong when you went that way as a New Jersey senator?

BRADLEY: I was not wrong as a New Jersey senator, and I’m not wrong as a presidential candidate. When you run for president, you’ve got to think of the whole country, not just your own state.

Ethanol is a ludicrous fuel made out of corn, at a cost far higher than the petroleum it replaces, produced with a huge government tax subsidy, which started during the energy crisis a quarter-century ago and has long since become a classic case study of stupid policy entrenched by special interests (in this case farmers and Archer Daniels Midland, the company responsible for the fabulous discovery that if you tell the government what to do in commercials on every Sunday talk show, the government apparently is powerless to resist).

It’s not just that Bradley opposed the ethanol subsidy until the other day. Tax policy is one of the subjects on which he is regarded as being especially philosophical, and his philosophy is that a simple code with lower overall rates is better than a complicated one filled with special treatment for one group or another. Bradley’s biggest accomplishment in 18 years as a senator was the 1986 tax reform that embodied this philosophy.

The honest answer to Larry King’s question–did he flip-flop because of the Iowa caucuses–would be “yes.” It’s hard to imagine any other reason, and Bradley offers none that is believable, or even coherent. Giving him maximum interpretive generosity, what he does say is sort of a baroque variation on “yes.” He’s saying: “As a senator, I pandered to the people of New Jersey. As president, I will pander to every special interest in this great country.” This raises the difficult philosophical question, Does a pol deserve credit for being an honest hack? It’s a tempting proposition. Trouble is, the need to pretend you’re not just pandering acts as a restraint on all but the most cynical panderers. We don’t want our pols to think they can win points by saying, “Sure I voted with the insurance lobby–do you know how much their PAC gave me last week?”

Anyway, Bradley’s answer was not really honest, even in this cynical sense. In fact, it was the opposite of honest. The truth is that as a senator he was serving the interests of the whole country, including New Jersey, while as a presidential candidate he has abandoned the national interest in favor of a small group of farmers. Second, he has no coherent response to King’s very good follow-up about whether he was wrong before he flipped. Even though he now claims the ethanol subsidy is good for the country, it was still “right” for him to oppose it as a senator because it didn’t benefit his state. So Bradley spent 18 years ignoring the good of the country except to the extent that it coincided with the good of New Jersey, and he believes every senator is “right” to do the same. (Unless he’s running for president, presumably, in which case he is permitted to consider the interests of Iowa and New Hampshire.)

A Slate colleague asks, quite reasonably: How should Bradley have answered the question? Start with the assumption that you can’t become president under our unique constitutional system without giving special pleasure to the citizens of Iowa, including the thrill of being paid by the government to turn corn into fuel. What should the candidate do when asked about it? It’s bad enough that we may have depleted our inventory of potential presidents by ruling out anyone who lies about sex. Do we really want to go further and disqualify anyone who lies about ethanol?

Maybe it’s not disqualifying, but yes: Bradley’s lie was a bad one. It was a betrayal of his own long-standing beliefs on an important policy matter. It was brazen, in front of millions on national television. And yet it was embroidered with just enough art and obfuscation that he can’t pretend it was a just verbal wink. He wants to con us.

So what should a person in Bradley’s position have done? One of two things, it seems to me. One is to have answered the question honestly and hope the voters reward him on the hoary American principle that ya gotta love a guy who admits he’s full of crap. It might work. And I wouldn’t be indignant if a sufficiently abject confession was tarted up with a bit of “… and that’s why we need campaign finance reform.”

What Bradley really should have done, though, is stick to his true beliefs, so the question of why he flipped would never have arisen. Maybe it’s true you can’t be president without supporting the ethanol subsidy. But Bradley doesn’t want to be president all that badly. Or has he forgotten that?