Evaluating Bill Bradley

His 18 years in the U.S. Senate reveal a politician who was a strong advocate -- or disengaged on key issues.

September 19, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

IN LATE 1993, then-Sen. Bill Bradley insisted in a major speech that every American "should be guaranteed access to quality health care" -- a cause he has embraced again in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination formally announced two weeks ago.

But in 1994, when President Clinton launched the most serious effort to provide universal health coverage since the Truman administration, Bradley largely remained aloof from the legislative struggle -- and, critics say, contributed to the plan's demise.

Such swings between impassioned advocacy and inscrutable disengagement defined Brad-ley's 18 years as a Democratic senator from New Jersey.

Extensive interviews and an analysis of his three terms show that Bradley avoided entangling alliances with virtually any Washington power center and steered a solitary course whose direction was often apparent only to himself.

"He has consciously stood aloof from virtually any political movement or school," says Will Marshall, director of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. "He's very much a solo operator in politics."

Two large questions about Bradley's presidential hopes emerge from his Senate career. One is whether his legislative record fits with his effort to position himself as a liberal alternative to Vice President Al Gore. The second is whether he exhibited the focus and toughness it takes to drive an agenda as president.

As a former Rhodes scholar and professional basketball star, Bradley arrived in Washington in 1979 as the object of great expectations. When he left in 1996 -- declaring that "politics is broken" -- he had become the subject of considerable mystification.

In the Senate, Bradley was neither a doctrinaire liberal nor a member of the "New Democratic" movement, led by then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, that began in the 1980s to challenge traditional liberalism. Bradley helped drive important legislative achievements, including the major reform of the federal tax code in 1986, but he never emerged as a significant legislative force with a long list of laws bearing his imprint.

His admirers saw a politician of unusual independence and intellectual integrity who, as his campaign literature puts it, "always took the long view." But critics, including many in his party, saw a consistent underachiever who closeted himself in abstruse issues such as Third World debt, and who, over time, grew increasingly distant from many of the key debates facing Congress and his party.

"Bill Bradley kind of answers to his own drummer," says Democratic lobbyist Bob Chlopak, who directed the coalition of liberal groups that supported Clinton's health care plan. "He did not, on a lot of issues ... dig in with his colleagues and try to build a majority. He had his own ideas, and he went his own ways."

Almost everyone who dealt with him considered Bradley smart and hard-working.

But opinions about his effectiveness in the Senate and potential skill as president diverge.

Friends such as former Sen. John C. Danforth, the Missouri Republican, believe that Bradley, with his desire to set his own course, might be better suited to an executive rather than a legislative role. "He was a person who had definite ideas of how he thought legislation should go, and he was not ... comfortable making a lot of compromises," Danforth said. "That's a better quality for a president, actually."

But others worry that Bradley's distaste for the deal-making of practical politics would lead him to become a taller version of former President Jimmy Carter, unable to translate his reformist impulses into successful programs. The most common criticism of Bradley is that while he can make powerful speeches -- such as his dramatic Senate-floor statement on race relations, in which he rapped a pencil 56 times to symbolize each time Los Angeles police beat Rodney G. King -- he often failed to follow through with concrete proposals or action.

Bradley's Senate record also sheds light on his efforts to establish contrasts in the campaign with Gore, a former senator from Tennessee.

There was relatively little daylight between their overall voting records in the Senate. An Associated Press computer analysis of 2,137 roll call votes that the two men cast from 1985 to 1992, when their Senate tenures overlapped, found they voted alike 79 percent of the time. They compiled virtually identical pro-labor vote ratings from the AFL-CIO.

Another analysis of their voting records, by the weekly magazine National Journal, shows that the two men took similar positions on economic issues, with Bradley slightly more liberal than Gore on cultural and foreign policy concerns.

Some of Bradley's campaign priorities today, such as his focus on racial reconciliation and reducing the number of children in poverty, flow from the issues he stressed as a senator.

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