World

The Wat the Ball Bounces

Andrew Phillips October 4 1999
World

The Wat the Ball Bounces

Andrew Phillips October 4 1999

The Wat the Ball Bounces

World

Suddenly, Al Gore finds himself facing a tough presidential challenge from former basketball star Bill Bradley

By Andrew Phillips in Washington

Bill Bradley has been very, very famous for a long, long time. In 1965, when he was just 21 and an all-American on the Princeton University basketball team, The New Yorker devoted almost an entire issue to profiling the young man who seemed to embody every ideal—athlete, scholar, social conscience and model of self-discipline. The article became a book, A Sense of Where You Are, in which author John McPhee singled out Bradley as the hope of a generation, not just another six-footfive phenom but a man destined, perhaps, to become president of the United States. When Bradley joined the New York Knicks, helping them win two NBA championships in the early 1970s, his teammates, too, knew he was on his way up. They nicknamed him “Senator” and “Mr. President.”

Bradley fulfilled the first part of that promise early, winning election as a U.S. senator from New Jersey in 1979 and serving in Washington for 18 years. The second part is a lot

tougher—but Bradley is closer now than almost anyone imagined. Suddenly, he has gone from being a credible outside bet for next year’s Democratic party nomination as president to a real threat to the front-runner, Vice-President AÍ Gore. Bradley still trails Gore nationally among Democrats by 2:1, but new polls in two key states show him running even with the vice-president.

In New York, the two men are tied at 42 per cent each. And in New Hampshire, where the crucial first primary will be held next January, Bradley has been playing devastatingly effective catch-up. He is at 41 per cent to Gore’s 46 (a statistical tie because of the poll’s margin of error). That’s a far cry from last May, when Bradley was a frill 45 points behind. Men, in particular, go for him; he outpolls Gore 57 per cent to 33 among male Democrats in the state. “It’s the basketball thing,” says Andrew Smith, a political scientist at the University of

New Hampshire who conducted the poll. “Guys love it.”

Now, expectations for the earlier-than-ever 2000 presidential race have been turned on their head. Six months ago, it looked as though Republicans would be embroiled in a bitter free-for-all while Gore would cruise to an easy Democratic nomination. Instead, Republicans have lined up massively behind Texas Gov. George W Bush, all but ending their contest as soon as it began. And Gore has stumbled badly, allowing Bradley to get quietly within scoring distance. At the same time, the Democratic nomination looks like a more attractive prize, with Republican maverick Pat Buchanan on the verge of bolting his party and running under the Reform banner. If that happens, Buchanan could steal Republican votes in 2000, making it easier for Gore or Bradley to win.

How did it happen? Largely because Gore has been unable to show that he can beat Bush next year. The vice-president is backed by almost the entire Democratic party establishment and has a healthy campaign bank account ($27 million in contributions by midsummer). But he has been savaged by the media as a wooden campaigner—a “man-like object” in

one caustic description. No matter that in person, at recent campaign events in Washington and Baltimore, Gore appeared relaxed and humorous. The earnest image is fixed in the public mind. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan scathingly underlined that last week as he endorsed Bradley. “Nothing is the matter with Mr. Gore,” Moynihan said blundy, “except that he can’t be elected president.” Worse, Gore cannot get out of the shadow cast by the sins of his boss, President Bill Clinton. Surveys show that most Americans agree it is not fair to blame the upright Gore for Clinton’s scandals—but many still do. Republican pollster Fred Steeper says the theme emerging from the current campaign is “about expunging this sense of disgust that people have with the White House.” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Senate in New York may heighten that feeling: many voters are exasperated that the Clintons refuse to fade away.

Bradley, meanwhile, has shown the kind of mastery on the campaign trail he once displayed on the basketball court. He spent the summer sketching broad themes, waxing eloquent about developing “a new narrative” for America and evoking the heardand values of Crystal City, Mo., his home town on the Mississippi River. He has made just two major policy speeches, on campaign finance reform and gun control, with another one coming this week on health care. While Gore has laid out detailed positions on every imaginable subject, Bradley has successfully conducted what might be described as a biographical campaign with the vaguely formed theme of spreading the prosperity of the 1990s to all Americans. Elect me for who I am, he suggests, not for what I might do.

Bradley, too, has money—$ 18 million from New York City business types still enamoured of his record with the Knicks, Silicon Valley techno-millionaires and NBA veterans like his old teammate Phil Jackson, now coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. But he relies mainly on an effective grassroots organization that spends much less than Gore, whose campaign is crowded with expensive pollsters and consultants. New Hampshire’s Smith says Bradley has energized local Democrats disappointed with the centrist policies and endless scandals of the Clinton years. “Bradley’s got people here juiced,” he says. “They really believe in him.”

What exactly they believe in is less clear. Bradley is running slightly to the left of Gore, a charter member of the socalled New Democrat movement that shifted the party to the centre. Bradley is outspoken on reforming the way campaigns are financed, on the need for stricter gun control and on strengthening gay rights—including letting homosexuals serve openly in the military. But his differences with Gore are few: when both men were in the Senate, from 1985 to.1993, they voted alike 79 per cent of the time.

And Bradley is hard to pigeonhole. He earned a reputation in the Senate as a loner who spent much of his time on issues far from the concerns of average voters, such as Third World debt. Wary of being typecast as a jock, he shied away from talking about his basketball record and became known as one of the least colourful senators around (some describe his faceoff with Gore as Tweedledull versus Tweedleduller). At the same time, his early career in the mainly black world of the NBA has led him to make better race relations a key part of his campaign.

Bradley still has a very long way to go. Gore, with his lock on the Democratic hierarchy and ready access to campaign funds, remains a formidable force. And if Bradley were to upset the vice-president for the Democratic nomination, he would face a tough opponent in Bush, the all-but-certain Republican nominee. Even the possibility of an effective rightwing third-party campaign that might help Democrats seemed less likely last week. Buchanan ran into a storm of criticism for suggesting in a new book that the United States should have stayed out of the war against Hider—an arguable military thesis, perhaps, but a surefire vote killer. For the moment, though, Bradley is bounding ahead—closer than ever to fulfilling the promise others saw in him so long ago. ED