Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley

Former U.S. Senator discusses civility in America and previews President Obama’s State of the Union address.

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 the author of several best-selling books, including The New American Story. He's managing director at Allen & Company and on the board of, which connects people to classrooms in need.


Tavis: Bill Bradley served for nearly 20 years in the U.S. Senate from New Jersey, of course, following his Hall of Fame basketball career with the New York Knickerbockers. He is also a best-selling author whose books include “The New American Story.”
He joins us tonight from New York. Senator Bradley, sir, always an honor to have you on this program.
Bill Bradley: Tavis, it’s always good to see you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking off the top what you think the challenge is, what is the mandate for the president tomorrow night in this speech that so many people are suggesting will impact his reelection chances? I’m not so sure it’s that serious, but what do you make of the speech tomorrow night, in advance?
Bradley: I think that what he’s got to do is give people an idea of what he wants to do for the next two years and then how that fits into the story of America, and why what he says is important to each person out there.
Tavis: You were talking about civility years ago. I can think of any number of conversations I’ve had with you about civility and white skin privilege and the challenge of America, this multiracial country, et cetera, et cetera.
I thought about you in advance of our conversation today when this civility conversation started to get some lift-off. What do you make of what it took to get us in this conversation about civility in America?
Bradley: Well, I think the political process has degenerated into name-calling and extremism, and I think that that’s unfortunate. I think the president did an incredible job at the funeral the other day in Arizona to call people to their better selves and to higher ground, and he might very well have had an impact on the whole political process, and I hope that that will be the way the debate will be held over the next six to eight months.
Tavis: Can that be sustained now that we’re into policy? I jokingly said a week ago that there was civility in Washington when the president called for it in part because Congress was out of session that week, but now that they’re back into session, can that be sustained, Senator Bradley, number one, and number two, is bipartisan sitting together tomorrow night, is that much ado about nothing, or is that something meaningful?
Bradley: Well, I think it’s a symbol of the desire of people to work together, and it’s a symbol of that desire in part because they feel the American public wants that to happen.
So I think that that’s one of the requirements. I remember when I was in the Senate for eight or nine years, it was a Republican president and a Republican Senate and yet we got a lot of things done, and I think that’s pretty much the way it is now. The question is what can you do to come together?
In order to do that you have to have compromise on both sides. The real question for me is will Republicans really compromise on the issues that are important to the country, whether it’s pensions or job creation, or whether it’s energy or whether it’s the issues that we all know we have to address if we’re going to compete effectively in the 21st century.
Tavis: So to your point now, what reason is there for Republicans to, to use your word, compromise and to help the president put points up on the board? Why help out?
Bradley: Well, I think that ultimately, people are going to be judged now that they control one house and having some responsibility. I think that they had the opportunity in the first two years of just saying no to everything. Now they don’t have that opportunity, because they have some responsibility.
When the president lays out his agenda tomorrow night, which I expect to be about competitiveness and what we have to do to deal with the growing power of China and India and what we have to do internally in this country to be ready to compete effectively, he’s going to ask Republicans to be a part of that.
I think that they could very well respond to that, because everybody in America knows that if we don’t have better education system in this country, if we don’t reduce the deficit, if we don’t stimulate job creation in this country, that the others in the world that are advancing fast will catch up and pass us.
Tavis: You called a moment ago, Senator Bradley, for Republicans to compromise. The flip side of that is that the president might well end up compromising.
What’s the difference between a Democratic president, given how he got elected and who his base was, the difference between his compromising and his capitulating?
Bradley: Well, the question is do you move our collective humanity a half-inch forward? Do you move the job creation a point or two forward? It might not get exactly what you want, but if you can make progress in the right direction I think that’s worthy of praise.
Tavis: To your point of a moment ago about the footsteps in the dark that we’re hearing from China and from India given that Hu Jintao just left the country here, what ought the president be saying to the American people about this level of competition with China?
Bradley: Well, he ought to be saying that the level of competition from China is serious. It’s a wake-up call for Americans. We’ve got to have our schools that will educate our kids better than they’re doing now. We have to live within our means as a country; we have to stimulate job creation.
I don’t think he’ll say this tomorrow night, but personally, I don’t think that the tax agreement last December will do the job. What is the job? To get unemployment to 7 percent by the summer of 2012. I think he needs that for his reelection, and I think that come summer there’ll be a reevaluation of whether the Social Security tax cut and the continuation of the existing tax rates will have achieved their purpose.
What I’d like to see him do at some point in the next six to eight months is propose what I call wage subsidies. Any company that hires an additional worker and doesn’t lay anybody else off, the federal government ought to help pay 20 percent of those costs. I think that that would get us down to the 7 percent unemployment level.
Tavis: Since you went there, let me follow you in and just give me a second to set this up, but I want to ask you a pretty hardcore political question here. You mentioned that you disagree with the president compromising or capitulating, depending on one’s point of view, on those Bush-era tax cuts. I happen to agree with you in that regard.
But it was Rahm Emanuel, when he was chief of staff, who in a variety of ways urged this president to do a number of things, back to my phrase, just to get points up on the board, because he would need that, to use your phrase, for his reelection. There’s no reason to believe that Bill Daley isn’t going to do the same thing – encourage the – he’s a pro-business advocate – Daley may very well do the same thing, encourage the president to do X, Y or Z, to your point, for the sake of getting reelected.
How do you juxtapose doing things for the sake of getting reelected with your principles and doing what people who voted for you expected you to do?
Bradley: I think that the president maximizes his chances of getting reelected if he can guarantee the unemployment rate will be at 7 percent in the summer of his reelection. I think that in December, the tax agreement, while it might not have been the best thing, in the long run it was certainly taking things off the table that they can’t talk about.
If indeed what they’ve agreed to hasn’t produced a 7 percent unemployment rate, then I think that he can come back with more and he can use it in an election. If they fail to do that and unemployment’s higher than 7, he can blame them because they have part of the responsibility now.
This is the politics of real things in this country. There are 9.5 percent of the American public, 17 percent if you count those who have been looking and can’t find a job, who are unemployed – 17 percent. We have to create more jobs, and we can do that in a number of ways.
One is we’ve got to get the corporations in this country that have $2 trillion in the bank to spend some of that money to hire people, and I think we can help do that if we can have the federal government help subsidize a percent of the wage for every new job that a corporation puts on its books.
Tavis: But here again, we bailed those banks out; we did it basically without any strings attached. Now the president calls them weeks ago to Blair House, begging them, to your point now, to invest some of that money back into the economy. What are you reading, what suggests to you that there’s any way that unemployment is going to get anywhere near 7 percent by the time this campaign really kicks up?
Bradley: Well, he still has policy tools like the one I’ve been talking about, with a wage subsidy, that could actually make that happen. It’ll be a tall order, but he could actually do that. If the companies feel enough confidence and certainty of what the terrain is going to be – and that’s one of the values of the tax agreement; they now know what the tax rates are going to be – that they can then use some of that money to hire people back.
I think that you’ll find a lot of companies in the country today who have dropped their productivity because they’ve cut their work force so much. If they hire more people, they’ll have higher productivity. They’ll make more money and more people will be employed.
Tavis: The one thing the polls seem to indicate, Senator Bradley, is that while Americans have had some issue with President Obama, particularly on the jobs front, they have never turned against him personally, and because of that we see his poll numbers inching up over the past few days.
What say you about his chances to get his agenda through, given that most Americans at the moment still appear to be rooting for him personally, if not politically?
Bradley: Well, I think his popularity is still very strong with the broad mass of American people. The American people know that he was dealt a hand that he had it, he had to deal with it.
Tavis: Right.
Bradley: We were in the worst economic circumstance since the Great Depression, we were in two wars, and he had to come in and try to set that straight. I think he’s done a remarkable job. I think the untold story of the stimulus package was not simply the millions of jobs that it created and avoided being lost, but also the fact that it’s the largest education bill in history, it’s the largest renewable energy bill in history and it’s the largest infrastructure bill in history.
The key thing now is to invest sensibly. If we’re going to invest in infrastructure, let’s invest in the infrastructure that’s actually going to make us more competitive in the world, like high-speed rail. He’ll probably talk about that tomorrow night. If we’re going to invest in education, let’s make sure we invest in education so that we hold our teachers and schools accountable for results and we then get better-educated people to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.
Tavis: Finally, let me close where we began. You served when you were in the Senate as part of a divided government, but you’ve also admitted in this conversation that our politics, our discourse, is much worse now than it was then. So juxtapose for me why it is or how it is that you remain hopeful that we can do better under this divided government when our discourse is worse now than it was then.
Bradley: I think the president has showed that he has a lot of moves, and any president has moves that he can make that can change the whole debate. I think continuing to take the high ground, hammer back on substance, don’t get personal and lead by the power of the presidency. Be the president of the United States, not a politician, and thereby call all Americans to the higher ground.
Tavis: What about the Knicks this season?
Bradley: (Laughs) Oh, I thought you were going to ask me a question I could answer. (Laughter) They still need a little help, they still need a little help, but they’re coming, don’t worry. Just because you’re in L.A., just because you feel like you’re with the champeens –
Tavis: (Laughs) No, but even so, you’ve got love Amar’e Stoudemire. I love Amar’e, he’s a great player. I love him, I love him.
Bradley: I’m telling you, I do, too.
Tavis: Yeah. We’ll close on that note, a happy note.
Bradley: Happy note.
Tavis: Bill Bradley – yeah, Bill Bradley.
Bradley: Thanks, Amar’e.
Tavis: (Laughs) Bill Bradley, former U.S. senator. Always honored to have him on this program. Senator Bradley, thank you for your time, sir.
Bradley: Good to be with you, Tavis.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm