Bradley shuns the L-word

January 12, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

DES MOINES -- At a press conference here the other day, former Sen. Bill Bradley was asked whether he shied away from "the L-word" -- liberal -- to describe his position on the political spectrum. It's a word that has been effectively demonized in recent years by conservatives to the point that most Democrats now deign to use it to describe themselves.

"I'll be defined by my life experience and the positions I've espoused," Mr. Bradley said. "People can call me anything they want."

Right now Republicans, particularly, choose to hang the liberal label on him. And he is generally perceived within his own Democratic Party as seeking to seize the left-of-center territory in it, as a contrast to the centrist position of the Clinton administration embraced by Vice President Al Gore.

While not calling himself a liberal, however, he has no hesitation in comparing his approach to leadership with that of two of his party's most conspicuously liberal presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. He cites FDR's initiative to create the Social Security system and Johnson's fight for civil rights examples of the sort of "big ideas" he says an effective president should tackle, rather than dissipate his political clout and energies on a host of lesser undertakings.

Health concerns

His own biggest idea, universal health insurance, is actually one that President Clinton, with Mr. Gore at his side, tried to achieve but failed in his first term. The Clinton proposal, which arguably was more liberal than Mr. Bradley's present plan, was shot down by conservatives in Congress and by the private insurance industry by successfully sticking the liberal label on it.

They characterized the creation of a new bureaucracy to run the Clinton health-care reforms as nothing more than a New Deal retread and the latest example of the liberal Democratic philosophy of tax and spend. It worked with the voters and the ambitious Clinton plan was defeated, leaving Mr. Clinton to abandon an approach of sweeping reform to one of incremental steps.

Mr. Bradley now pointedly chastises Mr. Gore for being too timid on health care reform, saying he and Mr. Clinton were right originally to pursue universal health care for all Americans. He responds to Mr. Gore's argument that the Bradley plan is too "risky" by saying it's too risky not to seek insurance coverage for everyone and invite higher medical costs in the end.

His other "big ideas" proposed so far include the toughest gun-control measures put forward by any candidate and campaign finance reform. Mr. Gore also advocates tougher gun control but does not go as far as Mr. Bradley, who wants not only licensing but also registering all handguns. On campaign finance reform, they seem not far apart but Mr. Bradley points out that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have been in office seven years and have not achieved anything substantial in this field.

Meanwhile, with his "big ideas" campaign, Mr. Bradley is moving away from a reputation for being too cautious. Criticized in the Senate for agonizing instead of acting, he argues that now is the proper time to seek and achieve ambitious traditional goals of the Democratic Party, which have been shunted aside, he says, during the Clinton-Gore administration. The time to "fix the roof," he says, acknowledging the strong economy of that administration, "is when the sun in shining."

Political role models

But Mr. Bradley also said in a recent debate that he admired the leadership style of President Reagan in focusing on achieving a few big goals. Mr. Gore, at a rally with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, at his side the other day, said:

"I believe a better model is Senator Kennedy's brother, President Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, where we take on all of the challenges that are confronting the American people."

For all his clinging to the centrist, "New Democrat" model of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore doesn't hesitate either to play to the party's left, also without using the feared "L-word."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat: 140 Years of Covering Politics," (Random House).

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