Ballot Box

Bradley’s Swan Song

LOS ANGELES–In the Apollo Theater debate  nine nights ago, Bill Bradley ripped into Al Gore, depicting him as a closet conservative who was unreliable on a host of issues important to Democrats–abortion rights, gun control, and racial justice. At tonight’s Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Bradley stood next to Gore for the ninth and final time and uttered not a single word of criticism–until 12 minutes before the end, when he responded obligingly to a pair of questions from journalists who essentially requested a reenactment of last week’s fireworks.

I doubt that Bradley’s opinion of Gore has changed so dramatically in a week. Nor do I think that Bradley’s tonal flip-flop indicates that he is desperately flailing around for a last-ditch way to win the election–everyone knows it’s utterly hopeless, including Bradley. In fact, it was striking how un-desperate Bradley sounded in the face of imminent defeat.

Rather, I think the sudden temperamental shift is explained by the strange quality of interiority that has characterized Bradley’s campaign from the outset. Bradley has always viewed running for president as an opportunity for personal growth and character development. I think he’s staying in the race for another week to achieve a sense of completeness as he comes to grips with the experience. To put it a bit cruelly, I think Bradley views his unsuccessful presidential campaign as a book that needs a last chapter. 

To achieve the closure he requires, Bradley had to do two things before exiting the campaign. First, he had to show himself that he could stand up to that lying bully, Al Gore. That was the purpose of last week’s onslaught at the Apollo. But having demonstrated that he could stick up for himself, he didn’t want to exit amid a haze of negativity and contention. Bradley wants to depart the stage on the high-minded, substantive, and civil note on which he began his candidacy. That’s the explanation for tonight’s tepid performance.

At times, Bradley sounded like he was writing the epitaph for his own campaign. “Not enough politicians speak from their core convictions,” he declared at one point. “I got into this race to try to deal with that.” Bradley kept drawing from this rhetorical well, calling for “a politics of belief and conviction” and for politicians who “respect the people.” At another point, he added, “Trust is the absolute ingredient that’s needed between a leader and the people.” Last week Bradley made remarks of this sort to denigrate Gore. Tonight he offered them as credits to himself.

Such declarations of principle aren’t about trying to convince the press and public to think well of Bill Bradley once again. Rather, I think Bradley means to solidify the legacy of his campaign in his own mind. The five-minute television commercial Bradley is buying tomorrow night has the same purpose: to prove to the candidate’s own satisfaction that his campaign had real value, that it proved a “different kind of politics” was possible. In fact, Bradley’s campaign was always better at expressing such values than it was at exemplifying them. What I think Bradley never grasped was the extent to which his moral hauteur and self-regard undermined his presidential quest from the start. For a candidate to be scrupulous and reflective is appealing. For a candidate to be smug and self-conscious is not.

It’s striking how much Bradley’s performance tonight recalled his manner in the first Gore-Bradley debate back in October. As he was then, Bradley tonight was high-minded and low affect. He presented himself as someone of superior character trying to raise the ethical tenor of national politics. To those not already enamored of him, he failed to make much of an impression. Bradley’s indignation is closer to the surface than it was back then. But in other respects, he really hasn’t changed very much. The chief difference between the debate tonight and the debate four months ago is that the guy Bradley is running against has improved vastly.

This is Bradley’s real legacy, though that’s not how he sees it. Bradley thinks he helped the Democrats by showing them that a nobler type of politics is possible. In reality he helped them by turning the vice president into a fiercer, more agile candidate. Bill Bradley leaves the race thinking of himself as Al Gore’s better. Most of us will remember him as Al Gore’s appetizer.