Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley

The best-selling author and former senator discusses his text We Can All Do Better, in which he assesses the state of the U.S., the toll placed on its people and what role each American can play to help the nation reach its full potential.

Bill Bradley is one of the first pro athletes to become a politician. He's a three-time basketball All-American and Olympic gold medalist who played 10 years with the NBA's New York Knicks. He's also a Rhodes Scholar and represented New Jersey for three terms in the U.S. Senate. In '00, he made a run at becoming the Democratic Party's nominee for president. Bradley is managing director at Allen & Company and on the board of, which connects people to classrooms in need. A best-selling author, his books on American politics, culture and economy include We Can All Do Better.


Tavis Smiley: Always pleased to welcome Bill Bradley to this program. The former U.S. senator, Basketball Hall of Famer and best-selling author is out with a new text about ideas of how to fix our broken political system. The book is called “We Can All Do Better.” He joins us tonight from New York. Senator Bradley, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Bill Bradley: Good to be with you, Tavis, as always.

Tavis: The title of the book “We Can All Do Better” suggests that there is a role for each and every one of us as Americans to play to make this nation a nation that will one day truly be as good as its promise. I agree with you in that regard.

Having said that, I think there is a distinction, though, in the roles that we have played to shipwreck this country, as it were, and I don’t think that everyday people, I don’t think that poor people are as much to blame, if I could use that word, as others are for the damage done to this country, and yet poor people so often end up paying the heaviest price. So again, we can all do better, but help me divvy up some responsibility here.

Bradley: Well, I think that there’s no question that the recent recession and the financial crash was really because of the financial sector. I think that there were five public policy decisions that were made that created the circumstance for the events of ’08 and ’09.

One was eliminating the Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated investment banks that invested their own money from commercial banks that took deposits and had it insured. When you put those two together, you find banks then speculating with depositors’ money. That’s not wise. There was way too much leverage in the system.

There was also no regulation of derivatives. So those are three public policy decisions that were taken that created the context for the disaster of ’08 and ’09 that as you point out created a disproportionate impact on people who have less means and had no responsibility for that kind of speculation.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but why is it then if we agree on the fact that there is a disproportionate level of responsibility that ought to be borne for the mess this country finds itself enduring right now, why is it that the rich and the lucky and the elite always seem to get off scot-free? Again, these budgets and austerity ends up impacting the least among us.

Bradley: Well, I think that part of the reason for that is the role of money in politics. Let’s take 2009/2010. In those two years the financial industry contributed $318 million to politicians in Washington. The healthcare industry contributed $145 million and the energy industry contributed $75 million.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that we got a financial reform bill that was watered down, that there was no public option in the healthcare bill to private health insurance, and that we didn’t even get around to doing an energy bill, even though every day we’re sending billions of dollars to autocrats on the other side of the world.

So there’s no question that this is a problem that can be solved, but the reason that the people who should be called to be a part of it are not a part of it is because of the role of money in politics, again, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s decisions that equate money with speech, and not limiting speech, you can’t limit money. I would say that’s one of the key factors here.

Tavis: We agree that Citizens United was a decision that opened up the floodgates, as it were, on money, not just from inside this country; indeed, money from outside that we can’t even track where it came from. So I think we concur on that point.

In your book “We Can All Do Better,” you go a step further, though, and you’re very frank and very honest about your assessment that the president, Obama, that is, squandered an opportunity here to do something significant and real about campaign finance reform.

So it’s not just his taking to task the Supreme Court, you argue that he could have done better. Tell me more.

Bradley: Well, I argue that, and President Obama, of course, I supported, I still support. I hope desperately he’ll get reelected. I will support his reelection.

But the question I raised was when he came to office he had so much good will, and the country was with him. He had 70 percent approval rating. If he had moved for public financing of elections in his first two months in office he could very well have gotten that.

It didn’t happen, I’m told, because it didn’t rank in the top five of issues that were important to people. Of course it didn’t. We were in the middle of a recession, a free fall, financially. People were interested in their jobs, their income. They were interested in their house; they were interested in the basics, so they didn’t think of this as one of the top five.

But this is the key to doing something about those top five, and so I argue that he could have done that. He chose not to do that, and certainly a lot was on his plate. He had the most difficult situation for an incoming president since the 1930s, since Franklin Roosevelt. He had an economy and a financial system in free fall, we were in two wars on the other side of the world, and I understand he had to devote his attention to that.

I just wish his staff would have made the point that I just made about how much easier it would be if we dealt with money in politics. Now, President Obama also, I think, illustrates something else. I think in Chicago on that election night in 2008, I think we made a mistake to believe that a leader can renew the country all by himself.

Even somebody who touched our hearts as much as Barack Obama can’t do it alone. It takes sergeants, lieutenants, it takes citizens, and we must never forget that democracy is not a vicarious experience.

Tavis: Both parties, as you argue in the book, are wed and tied to big money. I’m trying to see a way forward. Since we’re talking about the fact that we can do better, the question is how we can do better on this particular issue, because I just don’t see the way forward.

If Mr. Obama’s going to punt it and Mr. Romney’s already punted it, how do you see a way forward on campaign finance?

Bradley: The only way that we can deal with money in politics, because of the Supreme Court, and they’re right at the center of this, their decisions are right at the center, the only way we can deal with it is with a constitutional amendment that says that federal, state and local governments may limit the amount of money spent in a political campaign.

Once we get that, then we have mooted Citizens United and Buckley-Valeo, and we won’t have the circumstance that we have now, where 47 percent of the congressman and senators are millionaires while only 9 percent of the people are.

The point here is we’ve been there before. In the late 19th century, for example, corrupt state legislatures elected U.S. senators and they elected corrupt U.S. senators who were on the payroll, literally, of banks and railroads. The people rose up and they rose up, and they began a 10-year period of fighting for a constitutional amendment that did pass, was ratified by the states, and today we elect U.S. senators by the people and not state legislatures.

I think the key thing here for individuals to understand is that citizens often control major directions that the country takes. For example, in the 1830s it took a group of citizens to say, look, slavery’s immoral. They were called abolitionists. In the 1880s it took a group of citizens to say women ought to have a right to vote. They were called suffragists.

In the 1950s it took a group of citizens to say, look, African Americans ought to have the same rights as everybody else in this country. It was called the civil rights movement. In the 1970s, it took a group of people to say, look, we’ve got to clean up our air and our water. They were called environmentalists.

The idea of doing any of those four things wasn’t born in the brain or heart of a congressman or senator. It came from the people and the people rose up and made real changes for America, to make America a better place.

I think that’s clearly what has to happen today, because the real issue here is stagnant income, not enough people working, not enough income and the result is that you find people beginning to doubt upward mobility, which has been the essence of what this country’s about.

Tavis: Since you just ticked off, Senator Bradley, a list of activist movements that have, in fact, made the country better, you talk in the new text “We Can All Do Better” about the two activist moments I would suspect that most Americans would list if asked to name the two most contemporary movements that we have seen impact our body politic.

In no particular order, namely, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. It is your opinion, though, as I read your book, that neither one of them, neither one of these movements, that is, has really succeeded. Is that accurate?

Bradley: No, I would say that I think Tea Party succeeded more than Occupy. I’ll just create the context.

Tea Party had a very specific objective, which was roll back government. They chose to get involved directly in congressional relations – sorry, congressional races, and in 2010 they elected 43 Tea Party Republicans.

In the summer of 2011, when President Obama and Speaker Boehner had an agreement on principle on the deficit that included taxes, entitlements, defense, et cetera, et cetera, it was the 43 Tea Party Republicans who rejected that in the Republican caucus and brought this country to the brink of bankruptcy.

So when people say, look, things can’t change, well, nobody heard of Tea Party in 2009, and here they were, two years later, bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy because of their radical, right-wing views.

You saw Dick Lugar, Republican senator from Indiana, losing in a primary to a Tea Party guy two weeks ago, and the Tea Party guy said, “The era of collegiality is over. The era of confrontation has begun.” He went on to say his idea of being successful in Washington was to get Democrats to agree to his position.

That shows such ignorance about the country. We wouldn’t have a Constitution unless we had compromise, and they don’t want to compromise.

On the other hand, you have Occupy. Occupy called attention to a very important issue – income inequality – and they had a great slogan – “We’re the 99 percent.” They were also very well – and what they did also, however, was they chose not to get involved in congressional races and they chose not to have a specific objective, so they have had less impact than the Tea Party on the system.

Now, with that said, Tea Party was financed by some very wealthy people who can do that under the current law. Occupy had not a lot of money. They had a lot of good will, but not a lot of money, so I think that’s another aspect of the difference.

The real question is can we put together a movement that actually does the things that Americans want to have done? One of them is more people working. You mentioned austerity – austerity is not the answer alone. I don’t think we need to have deficit reduction in the next year or two, but if we dealt with the long term we could then get to stimulating the economy in the short term.

I make the suggestion that if a company hires an additional worker and doesn’t lay anybody off, that the federal government ought to pay 30 percent of that worker’s cost and do so for two years, and not a dollar of taxpayer money would be spent unless a job was created.

I also point out that if you are – take a look at corporations today. Non-financial corporations, they have $1.8 trillion on their books in cash and liquid assets. If 20 percent of that was used to hire people at the median income of $49,000, the unemployment rate would be 5 percent.

So you say, well, why aren’t they doing that? If you talk to them, they say, because they’re uncertain, they need a rainy day fund, and there’s not enough demand out there. Not enough people who have money to buy things.

I say you deal with their first objection by doing deficit reduction in the out years, and you deal with the issue of not enough demand in the economy by having a massive infrastructure program, a trillion dollars, that will hire millions of people to do 50 high-priority projects in the United States, like East and West Coast high-speed rail, new air traffic control system.

The result of that will be people working, earning good money and buying things, and then the companies will see, oh, well, they can sell things because people now have money. The government has to step in to do that.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about the fact that we as a nation can do better, and you were talking a moment ago specifically about the Tea Party, Senator Bradley, I wonder what you have to say about the fact that there is this sense that the Tea Party, at least, has tapped into, that government is the problem.

You go to length in the book to push back on that, but give me just a taste of your philosophy and how we respond to those who believe that part of the problem in this country, if you’re talking about deficit reduction, you’re talking about taxation without representation, et cetera, et cetera, on the left and the right, the arguments some people are making that government oftentimes gets in the way.

Bradley: Well, I don’t agree with that. I think that government is the collective expression of all of our values, quite frankly, and if you look at government, I say to people who want to eliminate government, well, do you take medicine? How do you know it’s safe? The Food and Drug Administration.

You go to the airport, you fly anywhere? How do you know it’s safe? You have the Federal Aviation Administration. You drive on highways, you take mass transit, you go to national parks? It’s all that. You get a Social Security check, a Medicare check, you feel safe because you’re protected by the defense budget?

For people to say they don’t believe in government, the question is what do they want to cut? Unless they’re willing to lay out specifically what they want to do, then you’re not going to have – in my view, they are on very shaky ground.

I look at government as being the tool that lays the foundation for economic growth, jobs and higher pay. Without government, I think for example if you just want to take, look, where is oil in this country? You don’t know unless you had a National Geological Survey.

What about water? A lot of places, California specifically, wouldn’t have enough water to drink if it wasn’t for government. So I think that the people who make that argument are really making an argument that shoots themselves in the foot, because you can have the whole private sector, but if the private sector doesn’t have a basic infrastructure, good education and the programs that I mentioned, you’re not going to have economic growth.

Tavis: There’s one part of the book that I came across that you and I disagree on, and you and I are almost always in agreement. But I think this is perhaps a charitable read, a generous read, when you suggest that even President Obama’s staunches opponents, since we’re talking about the Tea Party, you argue in the book that even his staunchest opponents are Americans before they are Republicans; they are Americans before they are Tea Partiers.

Bradley: Right.

Tavis: Well, theoretically, of course, you’re right about that. I’m just not sure that I’m persuaded. It’s plausible, (laughs) but not a persuasive argument for me.

Bradley: Yeah, well, I can understand how you have that point of view. I was saying that in the context of November and December of this year. In November and December of this year, there will be another debt limit. The Republicans are signaling they’re going to make it a big battle and will either get agreement or will not get agreement.

If we don’t get agreement on January 1st, there’ll be across-the-board cuts in domestic programs, with certain programs for the poor exempted, and in defense expenditures. The Bush tax cuts will expire; the Social Security tax cut will expire.

The real question is can, in that interim, the president peel off 20 to 25 Republicans? The Tea Party, there are 43 people in the caucus. That’s who the Tea Party is. They are way beyond their proportionate influence. If I were the president, I’d take 25 or 30 people in the Republican caucus that I would identify by virtue of education, background, basic values, know that the Tea Party is wrong but they’re going along because it’s the Republican desire to keep control of committees, et cetera.

I would know more about those 30 people than their mothers, and I would begin to identify who they listened to, who are their fundraisers, who are the companies, who’s their minister, and I would then invite them down right after the election, because I know this thing’s coming, and I think President Obama will be reelected, and I would say, “Your country needs you, and I want you to think about this. You can hammer me afterwards, but your country needs you on this vote and this is the package.”

Then I’d call them a week later and if they said no, we can’t, I’d call their mother. I’d call everybody, and call them to another level. I can guarantee you, whether you’re Tea Party or not, when you get a call on the phone that says the president of the United States would like to talk to you, there isn’t a mother around, or a brother, or a cousin, or whomever, that wouldn’t get a little nervous about to hear the president of the United States on the phone.

I think that that might be a strategy to break off enough Republicans to make something happen.

Tavis: This is an unfair question to ask in 20 seconds, but since, by my count, three times now you’ve expressed your confidence that President Obama is going to be reelected, in 20 seconds, why are you so confident? This race is tightening up as the days move on.

Bradley: It’s tightening up; it’s not going to be easy. Maybe it’s my belief in the American people, that they’ll see through a lot of the lies that’ll be put out with massive dollars through super-PACs about the president. This rickets thing is just the latest example. Thank God it was leaked and killed in the cradle.

There’ll be other stuff like that, but at the end of the day, the American people are going to say, “Who do I trust with my life? Who do I trust with my job? Who has a view of the world remotely similar to mine?” If the contrast is Barack Obama or Romney, I think the majority of people are going to say Barack Obama.

Tavis: The new book from former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, NBA Hall of Famer, is called, “We Can All Do Better.” Senator Bradley, good to have you on the show, and congrats on the new book.

Bradley: Tavis, it’s always great to see you, and I hope people, if they have ideas, will be a part of it at Bill Bradley #dobetter on Twitter.

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Last modified: May 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm