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The Vision Thing: Gore, Bradley Take Contrasting Views

January 20, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

INDIANOLA, Iowa — It's the pol vs. the professor, the realist vs. the reformer.

In their frantic final search for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley are offering voters very different conceptions of the presidency--and, in the process, subtly sharpening the class divides already shaping the race.

At its core, the dispute revolves around competing visions of the most effective leadership style at a time when the country is both generally content and narrowly divided in its allegiance between the two parties.

Bradley is portraying himself as a visionary idealist who will use the presidency to transform the parameters of the possible on issues like health care and campaign finance reform; in his portrayal, Vice President Gore appears as a compromising careerist too willing "to settle" for small change.

Gore, meanwhile, is presenting himself as a practical populist who can work within the system to make step-by-step tangible progress; in his portrayal, Bradley, a former senator from New Jersey, morphs into a dreamy egghead who would treat the presidency as "an extended seminar on theory."

"I do not believe the presidency is an academic exercise," Gore told supporters at a college here Tuesday. "I think the presidency is a day-by-day fight for real people who face real problems. . . . A president . . . who is willing to stay in there and fight for the average citizen can make all the difference."

That's a stark contrast with the language Bradley used at a rally Friday to describe the job in inspirational, almost mystical terms: "The untapped potential of the presidency is to unlock in each of us our capacity as public citizens . . . to unlock in each of us our connections with each other as human beings." Such a civic awakening, Bradley argues, would allow him as president to pursue a bold agenda that now appears implausible.

Analysts See Significant Contrast

In practice, the differences between a Gore or a Bradley presidency might not be as absolute as this rhetoric implies. Yet many analysts agree real differences in emphasis and approach lie behind the political positioning.

"There is a different view," says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Gore has learned from the seven years of the Clinton administration and understands something about how you get things done in contemporary American politics, and is also making a judgment about the market for bold initiatives in this political climate."

Bradley, by contrast, "has advanced a view that a crusading, transforming leadership style is appropriate for all seasons," Mann says. "It's as if the state of the economy doesn't matter, and the balance of political forces in the country and the Congress don't matter."

The two men disagree, not only on the kind, but on the number of initiatives a president should offer. Citing Ronald Reagan as one model, Bradley insists a key to presidential success is to focus on a few big reforms; Gore, who has disgorged a torrent of proposals on a wider range of issues, maintains a president doesn't have "the luxury of focusing on a single challenge" when so many domestic and foreign concerns demand attention.

Behind these broad philosophical disputes are more tactical political calculations. Though neither might quite match the original, Bradley and Gore seem to be framing their contest almost like a choice between Adlai E. Stevenson and Harry S. Truman, the Democratic archetypes of book-smart and street-smart politicians.

With his lilting appeals to idealism, and his professorial manner, Bradley is effectively attracting liberals, especially those who wear ties to work. In the states where Bradley is best known--Iowa, New Hampshire, New York--voters with college degrees and upscale professionals form the core of his support.

Many of those voters are drawn to the unabashed idealism in Bradley's speeches.When Bradley appeared at a Des Moines-area high school last week, Bill Wright, a 55-year-old art dealer from New York City who had never been previously involved in politics, was hanging signs and handing out fliers. "He has a manner about him that is reminiscent of the days of hope," said Wright, who was so moved by Bradley that he traveled to Iowa to volunteer for him.

A senator's son with an Ivy League pedigree, Gore isn't exactly earthy either. But, with his populist message, he is drawing support most heavily from blue-collar and minority voters--groups that have traditionally looked to politicians less for inspiration than for practical help with their daily concerns. And by accusing Bradley of treating the presidency as "an academic exercise" Gore is evoking cultural images of ivory tower intellectuals that could make it more difficult for Bradley to reach those working-class voters.

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