Bradley introduces a dull, gentler form of politics

July 26, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For nearly an hour the other day, Democratic presidential candidate, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, held forth at a National Press Club lunch on the subject of campaign finance reform. Not once during the speech, delivered in the lecturing tone of a college professor, was he interrupted by applause from the sellout audience.

When he concluded, there finally was a ripple of applause that steadily grew, until first a few and then most of the crowd stood and continued applauding. But there were no cheers or stomping of feet.

As presidential campaign speeches go, this one was decidedly on the cerebral side, presenting a reasoned critique of the damaging dominance of money in American politics, with nary a moment of comic relief.

Mr. Bradley did not talk in sound bites, probably to the chagrin of television news producers. Maybe it was his observation that "money was to politics as acid is to cloth -- eating away at the fabric of democracy."

Or that money "is like a great stone wall that comes between the people and their representatives." Neither one seemed likely to inspire voters to man the barricades for campaign finance reform.

Another approach

But that is Mr. Bradley's style. In his quest for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, he has to try and win over a citizenry accustomed to the sloganeering by candidates who reduce complex issues to simplistic answers and attack their opponents at every turn.

Mr. Bradley hopes to convince apathetic voters that his style of politics is the antithesis of modern politics. His only reference to Vice President Al Gore in the speech was to note reports that Mr. Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush "have directed their top fund raisers to begin raising soft money for the general election" of 2000, which he favors banning.

If he is the presidential nominee, Mr. Bradley said, he will "invite the Republican nominee to join me in a compact" to tell their parties "not to raise or spend soft money in the general election on . . . such matters as issue advertising" -- a backdoor way to help presidential nominees who have agreed, in return for public financing, not to raise or spend money on their own.

In addition to calling for closing down the "murky, unregulated underground system" of soft-money contributions, Mr. Bradley called for public financing of congressional elections, free television time for candidates in the 60 days before an election, exemptions in spending limits for certain grass roots campaign activities, same-day national voter registration, voting by mail and time off for working voters.

Although polls indicate voters want cleaner and less bombastic political campaigns and elections, the issue has never been one on which they have based their decisions on voting. Mr. Bradley is trying to elevate it as a campaign issue, but without -- so far, anyway -- directly referring to charges that Mr. Gore in the 1995-96 Clinton-Gore campaign cycle was involved in fund-raising excesses.

Swimming in money

In the question-and-answer session after the speech, Mr. Bradley was asked how he squared his call for campaign finance reform when he has been out raising millions himself -- a surprising $11 million in the first six months of this year.

He noted he is not taking special-interest political action committee money and is tapping voters who haven't been involved in politics before.

Mr. Bradley's campaign reform speech was the second recent occasion on which he offered specific proposals, following on his gun-control speech calling for a ban on all Saturday Night Special handguns, the registration of all handguns and the licensing of gun buyers. They mark a second phase in his presidential campaign after months of dodging details and campaigning more in a listening than a talking mode.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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