Ballot Box

Bradley Stumps

Editor’s note: Jacob Weisberg has filed from Wednesday night’s debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Click here to read it.

BEDFORD, N.H.–I caught up with Bill Bradley here today, having not seen him outside of his debates with Al Gore for a couple of months. A couple of things struck me about his appearance at a New Hampshire forum for candidates known as a “Politics and Eggs Breakfast” (actually a quiche lunch with a commemorative wooden egg laid at each place setting as a souvenir).

The first thing I noticed was how much Bradley has improved as a public speaker. Most of the time, in my experience, Bradley comes across more eloquently on the printed page that in his own speaking voice, which has all the effervescence of day-old champagne. Today it seemed just the reverse. Comments that might read as platitudinous rang with quiet force and sincerity. Bradley spoke for nearly 45 minutes and held the attention of a large, mostly conservative audience throughout with a mixture of gentle humor, anecdote, and explicit policy talk. Of course, Bradley has always been the opposite of Gore in that he radiates a sense of inner calm and comfort with who he is. What seemed different today was that he also seemed far more present and charismatic than usual, as he hopped discursively from observations on globalization to stories about his childhood in Missouri to jokes about basketball to his substantive proposal of the day, which was a plan to eliminate $10 billion a year in corporate tax subsidies.

The other thing that struck me about Bradley’s performance was the somewhat inconsistent quality of what one journalist recently described as his streak of “civic mysticism.” There were points in the speech were I found myself entirely swept up in Bradley’s call to political reengagement. In one particularly strong riff, Bradley talked about the need to turn globalization and rising prosperity into a more inclusive “narrative” in which ordinary people can locate themselves. Another fine bit was the meaty part of his speech in which Bradley talked about how the growth of the tax loopholes that he is proposing to eliminate fosters a corrosive distrust of government. Still another was the part about race, where Bradley quoted Toni Morrison on her vision of a world “in which race exists but doesn’t matter.”

But at other times, Bradley’s soul-stirring rhetoric sounds pretty much like hooey, as when he answered critics of his proposals to end child poverty and extend health insurance to all by repeating the mantra that “in a world of new possibilities guided by goodness, we can.” Beware of policy proposals that include a change in human nature as one of their essential requirements. There was more of this kind of thing in yesterday’s address on “America in the New Millennium,” which I read but did not hear him deliver. “Some people say we can never achieve our special destiny,” Bradley concluded. “But I say, in a world of new possibilities, guided by goodness, we can and we will.”

At the press conference, following this morning’s speech, I couldn’t resist asking Bradley what that was supposed to mean. What is our “special destiny” and who are the people who say we can never achieve it? Bradley actually filled out the cliché rather convincingly. “I think that our special destiny is to lead the world by the power of our example as a pluralistic democracy and a growing economy and to do so in a way that is consistent with the promise of the Declaration,” he said. And who disagrees with that view? “People who get caught up in the current moment and don’t have a longer view of our history and our potential,” Bradley said. “I could put a number of the Republicans in there, but I decided not to do that.”

As I mentioned, Bradley’s serious policy proposal of the day was to save $10 billion a year and $125 billion over the next decade by cutting corporate tax subsidies and cracking down on tax shelters. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, but it is undermined by two big flaws. Flaw No. 1 is that Bradley wants to crack down on tax subsidies for mining, oil, gas, and grazing, but leaves ethanol untouched. The reason is obvious–he’s running in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24. But the inconsistency glares. By proposing to cut off tax subsidies only in states that don’t have early primaries, Bradley has actually undermined his case for cutting any subsidies at all. Bradley’s new pro-ethanol position means that instead of ending tax favoritism, he is merely trimming it in politically convenient places.

In answering a question about this, Bradley seemed to leave the door open to changing his mind on ethanol for a second time, when he finished his answer by saying, “There are many other things in the tax code that I might be revisiting, so you don’t know.” But asked to clarify his position on the matter, Bradley said he would not “revisit” the tax subsidy for ethanol.

Flaw No. 2 is that Bradley’s loophole closing isn’t politically astute enough–in a way that the tax reform he accomplished in 1986 was. Tax reform in the 1980s was a grand bargain–it eliminated tax favoritism for some in exchange for lowering tax rates for all. Bradley’s latest proposal holds no such broad-based appeal. To cut tax subsidies without reducing rates is a tax increase. However defensible as a way to increase federal revenues, it has no prayer of Republican support.

To my mind, this insufficient idea only raises the question of why Bradley hasn’t yet come up with a more ambitious tax-reform proposal. An offer to do what he did in 1986 once again would command widespread support. It would shift the debate with Al Gore to a subject Bradley talks about with total confidence and authority. And it would provide Bradley, should he win the nomination, with an answer to the non-reformist tax-cut plans emanating from the Republican side. Perhaps tax reform doesn’t appeal to the new spiritualized side of Bradley. It’s just good government without any civic mysticism in it at all.