Frame Game

Bill Bradley’s Vietnam 

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

A year ago, Bill Bradley and John McCain faced a daunting challenge in Iowa. Each man was up against a well-financed front-runner who could marshal interest groups and local politicians to bring out a big vote on caucus night. Each man had taken a principled position during his Senate career—McCain against ethanol subsidies, Bradley against Midwestern flood relief funded by federal borrowing—that could be used against him in Iowa. Bradley decided to go into Iowa anyway. McCain decided to stay out. That difference says a great deal about where each man comes from and where he goes from here.

Bradley is an idealist. Unlike the technocrats, party hacks, and angry populists who have contended for the Democratic presidential nomination over the past three decades, he echoes the valor and innocence of the early 1960s. The class warfare of Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. Tom Harkin is as foreign to him as the incrementalism of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Bradley looks instead to the programs and principles of the New Frontier and the Great Society. He preaches faith, boldness, and big solutions to national problems. He sees distrust of government not as educated skepticism but as uneducated cynicism. He calls for a new war on poverty. He wants to outlaw anti-gay discrimination by reopening the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He speaks constantly of “racial unity” without defining it, as though the very concept were as controversial today as it was then. His campaign slogan distills the idealism of that era: “It can happen.”

The case against that idealism is that it didn’t happen—that big government solutions failed or backfired, that the War on Poverty was lost, and that the racial equality that liberals promised in law remained frustrated by cultural and economic factors they had thought government could easily overcome. These setbacks brought discredit to the whole idea of government activism, converting practical failure into political failure. Liberalism became a dirty word. Democrats, banished from the White House, learned to temper their ambitions. The courage of Al Gore Sr., who lost his Senate seat to a liberal-bashing campaign in 1970, gave way to the caution of Al Gore Jr.

But caution can be frustrating. Why not guarantee health insurance for all Americans? Why not outlaw all cheap handguns? Why not ban soft money and fund elections publicly? This is Bradley’s inspiration and message: He’s tired of “timid” Democrats who “nibble around the edges.” With confidence and principle, he argues, Americans can create “a world of new possibilities, guided by goodness,” in which all obstacles can be surmounted. Gore’s entrenched assets in Iowa seemed just another obstacle. Bradley didn’t flinch. He joined the battle on Gore’s terrain. He poured millions of dollars into the state. He offered a vision of a better world, confident that he could win over the hearts and minds of Iowans.

John McCain witnessed that kind of confidence in Vietnam: the courage to fight on unfamiliar terrain, the will to spend freely, the faith in hearts and minds. He spent years in a prison camp paying the price of those ambitions. He learned the skepticism of the soldier. Like Bradley, McCain is an idealist. But unlike Bradley, he came away from the 1960s chastened by nobility’s limits. McCain sees a world not of “new possibilities, guided by goodness” but of threats abroad and hubris at home. To those who believe gun control will cure school violence, he replies that the Internet is full of Web sites illustrating how to build pipe bombs. To those who promise big tax cuts based on projected surpluses, he replies that the government must first pay off its debts and trust funds.

Having experienced war firsthand, McCain respects prudence more than bravado. He sees the battles before him as tests not of manhood but of strategy and discipline. His objective is to get the job done. He saw that Iowa was a quagmire. He saw that New Hampshire, with its open primary and penchant for mavericks, was more favorable terrain. The book on presidential politics says a candidate must compete in Iowa to be taken seriously. But soldiers throw out the book all the time. So McCain spurned Iowa. He gambled that he could raise enough money and drum up enough support in the New Hampshire polls to guarantee his credibility until the primary.

McCain’s mantra is that he’s willing to fight. “I am not afraid,” he repeated over and over in his announcement speech last fall. But his strategic advantage is the opposite: Having proved his courage as a soldier, he can get away with ducking fights as a candidate. No one who avoided the Vietnam draft by signing up as an Army journalist or Texas Air Guardsman can call a POW a coward. So McCain’s fellow candidates gave him a bye on Iowa. And just in case anyone in the press corps thought of accusing McCain of chickening out, he framed his evasion of Iowa as a sacrifice he had to endure for his principled opposition to ethanol subsidies.

McCain got 5 percent of the Republican vote in Iowa last night. Bradley got 35 percent of the Democratic vote. Yet the media consensus is that McCain is ready for Bush in New Hampshire, while Bradley has suffered a grievous blow and faces the likelihood of a conclusive defeat next week. Front pages and TV pundits now speak of Bradley in the past tense while bubbling with excitement over a Granite State showdown for George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, and McCain. “Tonight, I have a little more humility, but no less confidence that I can win and do the job,” Bradley conceded as the unhappy returns came in. The confidence may well be warranted. But the humility may have come too late.