Bill Bradley: "We Need To Think Bigger Thoughts"

A talk with the former senator as he takes to the stump

Former New York Knicks star and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley is practicing his moves in new venues these days -- spots like Iowa and New Hampshire. Bradley, who has formed a Presidential exploratory committee and is gearing up as perhaps the only Democrat to challenge Vice-President Al Gore for his party's nomination, barely registers in the polls right now. But by this time next year, he hopes to position himself as a viable alternative to Gore, despite the overwhelming institutional support the Veep has lined up.

Is this a hopeless crusade? Maybe yes, maybe no. Any way you slice it, the odds against Bradley capturing the nomination seem long. He's unlikely to amass the $25 million needed to mount a credible Presidential run, in part because his support for campaign-finance reform will limit his ability to rake in big bucks. Party elected officials are lining up in droves for Gore. Even liberals back the Veep now that their heartthrob, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) has passed up the race. To complicate matters, Bradley is a cerebral loner who prefers intellectual noodling about cyber-taxation to schmoozing with voters down at the local diner.

Still, there is a certain method to Bradley's madness -- call it "slow-break" politics. Capitalizing on widespread public revulsion to Washington's preoccupation with mudslinging and impeachment, the New Jerseyian will style himself as a man apart from the Washington political culture. With turned-off independents now accounting for 39% of registered voters, this self-styled outsiderism could be attractive in 2000 to citzens who want nothing more to do with vengeful Hill Republicans, a dodgy Clinton -- or his uninspiring acolyte, Al Gore.

Indeed, 2000 figures to be a vintage year for third-force politics. With the exception of Gore, politicians of every stripe will be blasting Washington and promising a populist assault on what Bradley dismissively labels the politics of "self-absorption."

The more Gore is identified with the Establishment and the status quo, the more room there is for Lonesome Bill to attack politics-as-usual. For this approach to really work for Bradley, though, he'll have to cast Gore as another Walter Mondale and assume the combative persona of former Colorado Senator Gary Hart -- whose insurgent campaign almost toppled front-runner Mondale in 1984.

Most political pros consider Bradley ill-suited for this kind of gut-fighting. Thus far, he's murmuring blandishments about Gore, resisting any impulse to go for the jugular, and trying to rally voters around the JFK-esque slogan, "We can do better."

Right now, Bradley prefers boning up on issues to mixing it up with Gore. He's slowly shaping a platform that will be built around a few core issues: campaign-finance overhaul, tax reform, education and child-care support for working families, and strong backing of free trade and internationalism.

In a Jan. 6 interview with Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak and other Business Week staffers, Bradley spelled out his thinking about a Presidential run, belittled the Clinton-Gore Administration's micro-initiatives, and said it was time for big thinking and "big reforms" from a really big guy. That would be Dollar Bill, himself.

Note: This is a longer version of the interview that appears in the February 15, 1999, issue of Business Week.

Q: The country has peace and prosperity. What void does President Bradley fill?

A: The reason I'm running is to try and unleash the potential of the American people. We see that potential every day in our economy and technological progress. You need to take that energy and turn it toward areas that need action -- early childhood [aid] and improving education and health care. You need to turn it toward reforming the international financial system, to thinking through what technological progress implies for the tax system. We're in a period of incredible change, and we need to think bigger thoughts.

Q: Most of the items you ticked off seem right out of the Clinton-Gore team's playbook. What's the Bradley difference?

A: There are certain things the Administration has done well. We agree on a lot more issues than we disagree on. But [there are differences] on the bigger proposals, and we'll be making those public in the next year.

Q: You seem concerned about income inequality. What's your solution?

A: You have to improve the disposable-income situation of the average worker by helping them with things like child care, health care, and education. But you have to do this in a conceptually whole way. You can't do it simply in terms of little initiatives. I've always been someone to think of big reforms, and what I'll be doing is trying to explain these things in systemic ways, not in sound-bite ways.

Q: What's your "big reform" plan for the tax system?

A: You collect taxes for income generated where value is added or where sales are made. As you move more into a cyber economy, it's very difficult to tell where those points are and more difficult to be certain of revenue. You need to say, "What's the most important tax and the surest to be collected?" And what's the most onerous tax people pay? The Social Security [payroll] tax. Maybe there's another source of revenue to replace that, thereby cutting taxes and creating jobs.

My general view of income taxes is that there could be lower rates with fewer loopholes. That's a significant difference between me and most of the people in the Administration. I think they like loopholes. They have increased them dramatically over the last four years.

Q: You spent a year lecturing out in Silicon Valley. Did you become a New Economy convert?

A: What's happening in the Valley is incredibly exciting. The New Economy is accelerating, not decelerating. It's going to create job in places rich [in knowledge skills] and in cyberspace. I think the New Economy is a major jobs generator, and by and large, the jobs are higher-paid, not lower-paid. The extent to which this is changing the face of our economy and our lives accelerates every day.

Q: Why stake so much of your campaign on a seemingly quixotic call for campaign-finance reform?

A: It's the most important democratic reform we could enact, as important as any in the 20th century, with the exception of the expansion of voting rights in the Sixties. Money fundamentally distorts our democracy today. We live in a system of one person, one vote. But we all know some people have a lot more clout [due to campaign spending].

Q: How will you deal with this problem in your own fund-raising?

A: I'll limit my contributions to $1,000 and take no political action committee money. I'll establish no sham state PACs in Virginia, as a lot of other people have. That means I have a tremendous amount of work to do to raise money. But there have to be some self-imposed limits in order to be credible.

Q: You really think reform has a shot?

A: Once people realize that they're paying higher taxes because of the way we finance our political campaigns, we'll find broader support. For every $500,000 or $3 million soft-dollar contribution, they need to check the terms, and see if someone got a loophole or a subsidy or favorable regulatory rule that cost the rest of us.

Q: Is there a backlash building to globalism?

A: Globalization, managed properly, is an enormous positive. Open trade is the key to higher living standards. Yet we live in a world where domestic economic decisions, if they're sound, will attract capital, and if they're unsound, will frighten capital. It puts a real premium on managing your own economy well. We need better information about the international financial system. People are making decisions about investments in many parts of the world with inadequate information. There needs to be more stability and predictability in the system. I'll be speaking more about this, because I think it's a key reform agenda for the next four years.

Q: How will the ethics scandals dogging the Clinton Administration affect your candidacy and others in 2000?

A: Every Administration starts fresh, and whatever happened doesn't imply it will continue to happen. We might have to have some different procedures. But it starts with campaign-finance reform, with disclosure, with a certain attitude, and with the team you have.

Q: Do you in any way associate yourself with the Jesse Ventura phenomenon, with antipolitics?

A: I was signing books in Minneapolis the day after his election [as governor], and someone asked me about it, and I said I was a little surprised. The guy said: "You shouldn't be." Ventura won because he spoke directly to the people. Now, I think there is a major disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country [over impeachment]. The image of the House Republicans is that of a bunch of guys trying to catch a cat on a boat. I come home from my office at 10 p.m., turn on the news shows about impeachment, and say: "What relation does this have to me?" And the answer is: "Zero." It's an exercise in self-absoprtion.

Q: If you were back in Washington today, what would you be saying about impeachment?

A: Get it over.

Q: Will you run as an outsider in 2000?

A: I'll run as me.

Q: And what's the essence of the Bradley 2000 pitch?

A: You'll see over the course of the year. This is not something for a prepackaged phrase. It will come from the heart, and has to connect with people. It will be, I hope, a clear direction for the country. We'll see.

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