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End of the Trail for Senator Bill Bradley

March 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Some analysis from Brooks and Oliphant. “Weekly Standard’s” senior editor, David Brooks, “Boston Globe” columnist Tom Oliphant. First overview, David, what do you think of the way he went out?

DAVID BROOKS: He didn’t exactly gush with flattery for Al Gore. He didn’t gush with much of anything. I think that was one of the problems. He ran a dignified campaign. The slogan should have been, “Vote for Bradley. He won’t stoop to your level.” And that distance, that aloofness was visible in that clip today.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, yes, I agree with David. On the other hand, that was — we just saw your classic friendly withdrawal statement. It was fundamentally gracious and accepting. And I think it reflects an underlying reality that there haven’t been any consequential political after-effects because of this fight.

DAVID BROOKS: The other thing I saw looking at that was how Clinton has really changed this party. This used to be a party riven with ideological fights. It was an ideological party. Bradley tried to hit Gore from left and right but as the Republicans have found out over the past eight years, these triangulating politicians are really hard to hit on ideological grounds. It’s a testimony in some ways to Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, I do though I would go on to say that there are two very significant accomplishments that Senator Bradley had from this campaign. Remember, the Democratic Party really didn’t know a year ago where it wanted to go next on health care reform. And it may not now want to go in Senator Bradley’s direction, but the topic is there simply because of his candidacy. Secondly, the Democrats may get in trouble because Vice President Gore — because of Senator Bradley, who is now advocating some very tough gun-control proposals. But it’s definitely true that those proposals would never have been made had it not been for Senator Bradley’s candidacy.

JIM LEHRER: What about Bradley’s claim that he was a new politician, in other words, he was a candidate of the new politics, did that ring true just now when he said it?

DAVID BROOKS: He is but he was competing with John McCain for that and he lost that. This election has taught me one major thing, which is that we have a two-party system with a three-party electorate. There really is this group in the middle — we call them independents but they have hardened into a reform group that will respond to iconoclastic patriotic reform. And Bradley and McCain were competing to head that party, which is a party without a party, and Bradley lost that race I think because of the aloofness.

JIM LEHRER: Then you would agree with Bradley, though, when he said also the forces of reform are alive and well. Amen you would say?

DAVID BROOKS: I would say that’s exactly right. And Bradley and McCain are sort of part of that party which is still yet forming.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

TOM OLIPHANT: Very briefly, I would just say though that I also learned from this experience that in going for that third electorate that David spoke of, you must do so with at least an elemental base of support within your own party. And Senator Bradley didn’t have it within the core of the Democratic Party, just as John McCain didn’t have it within the core of the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: Tom, what would you add to Bradley’s own analysis of why he didn’t do well?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think there’s a flaw in Bradley’s analysis, in that it focuses too much on himself. He may have made a reference to entrenched power; another way of looking at entrenched power, of course, is to talk about a sitting vice president for a relatively successful administration who is seeking to do what many a sitting vice president has done, namely, become the presidential nominee. And I don’t think I ever heard a compelling argument over the course of this campaign why that normal succession shouldn’t occur.

JIM LEHRER: David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there was also a cultural misstep, which is that the key word of this campaign has been “fight.” Fighter, fighting, it’s a return of machismo. We thought the soccer moms would be in control of the compassionate, softer, dignified Bradley or G.W. Bush might take the stride. But in fact it’s been a return of manliness. Al Gore is now wearing the short sleeve shirt so we can see his muscles. And he says join the fight — McCain, fighter. Bush is beginning to talk like a fighter. So there is really a more manly ethos to this campaign.

JIM LEHRER: But here was Bradley, the professional athlete in the group, and you’re saying he did not come over as the fighter.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. He was a fighter on the basketball court as a matter of fact. He was a bit of an elbow guy. But he didn’t come across that way.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, Tom.

TOM OLIPHANT: Don’t forget though, that Vice President Gore did not use the word “fight” nor did he behave like a fighter until the end of last summer, and so while David’s point about machismo I think has relevance, there was a kind of artificial implantation of machismo in Vice President Gore because a year ago at this time that was not him at all.

JIM LEHRER: OK. You’re saying that Bradley is the one who brought that out in him?

TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely.