MANCHESTER, N.H.–Few people expect Bill Bradley to drop out next week, even if Al Gore clobbers him on Tuesday. The contest has gotten too bitter to expect a gracious concession for the sake of the party. But with Bradley sliding further behind in the polls here, I also don’t know anyone who thinks he has much hope of turning things around, even now that he has gone passive-aggressive on his opponent. So perhaps it is only mildly premature to ask: What went wrong?
In essence, Bradley unlearned the lesson of Michael Dukakis’$2 1988 campaign. In that election, Dukakis felt attacks against him by the Bush campaign and various surrogates were so preposterous that they could be safely ignored. Dukakis wouldn’t let his staff fire back in response to issues like Willie Horton, the Democratic nominee’s “card-carrying” membership in the ACLU, and the false allegation that he had needed psychiatric care. Unanswered, these scurrilous attacks did Dukakis a great deal of damage. In the recriminations season that followed the Dukakis defeat, Democrats swore they would never let it happen again. In 1992, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos set up their famed “war room” in Little Rock. When anyone attacked Bill Clinton for anything, no matter how petty, the Clinton team struck back fast and hard. “Rapid response” became one of the watchwords of the successful campaign.
The Bradley campaign’s version of this might be called “relaxed response.” Scorning “tactics,” a word he pronounces with exaggerated disdain, Bradley has spent the last four months mainly ignoring Gore’s harsh and often unfair attacks. A recent example was the issue of the 1993 flood-relief bill, which Gore raised to devastating effect in an Iowa debate on Jan. 8. During the debate, Bradley apparently did not remember the circumstances, so he brushed off the charge that he opposed emergency aid for farmers by saying he was interested in the future, not the past. Bradley had, in fact, voted for $4 billion in flood relief. He had merely failed to support an additional $1 billion in aid that the Clinton-Gore White House also originally opposed. The next day, Bradley explained this background, which rendered the charge absurd. But for the next two weeks, the Gore campaign hammered Bradley in Iowa with 30-second TV and radio spots featuring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who charged that Gore was “the only Democratic candidate for president who has been there for us in our times of need.” For 10 days, the Bradley campaign didn’t answer the ad. Only in the last few days before the caucus did Bradley air a response featuring Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, who asserted, “Bill Bradley stood with me in 1993 to support billions of dollars in flood relief.”
The dilatory pace of the Bradley campaign manifests itself in response to good news, too. On the evening of Saturday, Jan. 22, Bradley received an advance copy of the Des Moines Register’s endorsement of him that was to appear in the next day’s paper. Bradley’s press secretary, Eric Hauser, told reporters that there would be an ad on TV on Sunday touting the influential paper’s endorsement. But come Sunday, the Bradley campaign announced that the ad wouldn’t be ready until Monday–the day of the caucus. The unexplained delay meant the difference between an ad that might have been quite effective and one that was largely useless.
Only since their debate five days ago has Bradley finally been retaliating against Gore, raising the campaign-finance scandals of 1996 and making an issue out of Gore’s lack of candor about his anti-abortion voting record in the early 1980s. In Concord yesterday, in a speech at Franklin Pierce Law School, Bradley called the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign “embarrassing” and a “disgrace,” and slammed the vice president for being untrustworthy. “If a candidate doesn’t trust the people enough to tell them the truth as a candidate, then why should the people trust the candidate to tell them the truth when he becomes president?” Bradley wondered.
Bradley went on to explain the reason that he thought this criticism of his opponent was justified. “After months of misrepresentations of my positions, I felt it was important in the debate last week to correct the record and to hold Al Gore accountable for those statements and those misrepresentations,” he said. But why did he have to suffer months of misrepresentation before feeling that it was important to correct the record? Bradley was supine for the same reason that Michael Dukakis never responded to Lee Atwater and George Bush: He holds his opponent in such contempt, and voters in such esteem, that he didn’t think anyone would fall for such low tricks. Now that Bradley has finally discovered that mud sticks, it’s much too late for him to sling it back. His 11th-hour bellicosity looks desperate and hypocritical.
And as always with Bradley, there is a once-removed quality to the way he is responding to Gore. He’s still obsessing about the question of how a good person deals with a bad person being unfair to him–instead of just kicking back when he gets kicked. When he’s on stage, it’s almost as if Bradley is watching himself struggle with the moral dilemmas of running for president, instead of just running for president, the way Gore is doing. Watching the poor performance he gave at a side-by-side appearance with Gore at a State Democratic Party dinner on Friday evening, I got the feeling that Bradley was already thinking about his next book: a meditation about what our nasty political system does to decent people like himself. Looking back, Bradley is likely to portray himself as the victim of Gore’s brutal unfairness. But in politics, a victim who won’t defend himself deserves at least some of the blame.