On the dashing of Bradley's hopes

March 05, 2000|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In the NBA, what they call "garbage time" comes late in the fourth quarter of lopsided games, when scrubs are sent into the game so the starters can rest their aching knees for the next game. But in a political campaign there is no substitution, so Bill Bradley, who must by now be one large ache, has to play out the clock, which probably will run out Tuesday.

Since he was in high school, people have been saying he would be president. He will not be in 2001, and this year may have lost for reasons that suggest a second attempt would be futile. Having failed with his full-court press in Washington state, Mr. Bradley faces a continent-wide crushing on Tuesday.

Failure as much as victory can be rich in lessons about campaigning and the country's condition. Here are seven lessons from the dashing of Mr. Bradley's hopes.

First, for all the idle chatter about the "Republican establishment," the Democratic Party has a more formidable establishment that can throw consequential weight around in a nomination contest. It consists of leaders of organized labor and African-Americans: A candidate who gets both groups is more than halfway home. Both are significantly dependent on, or hopeful of, substantial benefits from federal actions favored by the liberal party.

The conservative party is inherently less likely to have large blocs similarly dependent or hopeful. Furthermore, the idea that, say, Republican elected officials constitute an establishment that can command vast battalions of Republican voters is weird: Its premise is that the base of a party steeped in skepticism about government and the political class will be deferential to politicians in office.

Show me the money

A second lesson concerns money: Although large amounts of it are essential, it is nevertheless overrated. It is especially overrated in the Democratic nominating process because of the existence of the Democratic establishment whose support, although not primarily expressed in cash, has a huge cash value. George W. Bush's $69 million has less cash value than the unbought adoration of journalists -- that bloc of nonconformists -- for John McCain (who of course wants government controls on the kind of contributions he has not depended on).

A third lesson is that at most one candidate in any given year can mount a strong campaign for a presidential nomination by relying to a significant extent on independents, and on members of the other party who are only lightly attached to it. There are not enough of those people to divide into two groups each capable of substantially determining each party's nomination.

This year, either Mr. Bradley or Mr. McCain could win the contest for this free-floating constituency. Mr. McCain did.

Moralist schmoralist

A fourth lesson is that Democrats are in no mood for ambitious government or moral crusades. Mr. Bradley's complaints about Mr. Gore's more incrementalist approach to achieving universal access to health care have fallen flat. So has Mr. Bradley's most admirable theme, his concern for child poverty. But Mr. Bradley seems, like many liberals, to consider child poverty as a problem to be addressed by material redistribution rather than a comprehensive attack on the culture of poverty, with measures ranging from welfare reform, which Mr. Bradley opposed, to school choice (see next paragraph).

A fifth lesson is that many Democrats regard the 2000 election as (in the phrase of John J. Pitney Jr. of Claremont McKenna College) a "preventive election." By intoning the dreaded word "vouchers" (code for school choice, a heresy Mr. Bradley briefly flirted with long ago and has repented of) Mr. Gore promises to protect the public school status quo from competition.

And this fall Mr. Gore's principal promises will be to prevent change (in the Supreme Court's support for abortion rights, in affirmative action, in the public school monopoly, etc.).

The race chase

A sixth lesson is that race has lost its saliency with Democrats. Mr. Bradley has spoken insistently about the imperative need for racial reconciliation. But race relations have never been better, and arguably would be better still if there were less obsessing about them, and fewer "race-conscious" policies encouraging victimization-mongering by grievance groups.

Finally, a seventh lesson is that candidates who are armed mostly with their stature as senators are unarmed. During his whimsical foray into the Republican contest, Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch confessed to being startled by how unknown he was, in spite of C-SPAN and innumerable appearances on network television. It says much about this political year that Mr. McCain's success owes almost everything to what he was before he became a senator.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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