Washington -- NEW JERSEY voters came close to dumping Sen. Bill Bradley last year. That jolt made him think deeply about what the Democrats must do to be potent at the polls next year.
"I did not identify with the legitimate concerns of middle-class voters," Bradley said in explaining his near defeat.
Should you ask him, the senator could still tell you more than you would ever want to know about Third World debt. But it's clear that's no longer on his agenda these days. Instead, he's thinking about the vast body of Americans who fall between the poles of rich and poor.
"What middle-class people want and need," he says, "is more money in their pockets. What's more, they feel that government is no longer accountable."
If Bradley has his way, that situation would change. His best shot at changing it, of course, is to run for president and win. But Bradley says 1992 "just doesn't feel right to me." Anyway, he's is not alone in assuming that his 1990 results have mooted such a race.
Still, Bradley brims with ideas these days. That in itself makes him an odd duck in a Congress whose members mostly can't see beyond the next budget deficit and the next election.
Soon, for example, Bradley plans to put forward a bill that would revolutionize access to a college education. He has been test-marketing his plan in June commencement speeches.
It can now cost a family upward of $100,000 to get a child through a highly rated private university. Some able students and some top athletes win scholarships. But many families remain caught in a big money squeeze.
Even state schools, Bradley notes, no longer are any great bargain. Along the way, banks have tightened up on student loans. And too many students lucky enough to get such loans see no great moral need to pay them back.
So Bradley would give all students a way out. As he puts it, they could "take responsibility for the education they choose out of the income they will gain from it." Costs would be paid back, perhaps over as many as 20 years, via a payroll surtax or a quarterly assessment from the IRS.
The notion of such an educational opportunity fund is not new. Actuaries have long seen it as sound. Insurance premiums deal with deadbeats while a one-time, pay-out feature protects the newly rich. The rest of us would pay the same way we now pay our income taxes. After the debt, plus fair interest, is met, the surtax would be struck.
Smart kids could follow Bradley to Princeton without the anguish of depriving a deserving sibling of his or her due. Even not-so-smart kids could follow Mrs. Bradley to New Jersey's Montclair State. (The senator's wife takes courses there in German literature.)
More than a fifth of all U.S. students now leave high school without getting a diploma. In inner cities, the rate climbs above 50 percent. A self-funding educational opportunity plan would alter none of those dreary statistics.
Nor would such a plan fix the woefully poor job some high schools and parents do in getting kids ready for college. (Each year in the Deep South about a third of the new freshman class must enroll in at least one remedial course. Most at risk: math and writing skills.)
But it would leave some middle-class pockets fuller. For others, it could open doors that now remain closed. We need ideas that help people while spanning the pits of race and class. If they can be made to work, they can also help a politician and his party along the way.