Archive for Sunday, May 2, 1999

DEMOCRATS FALL SHORT ON IDEAS

May 2, 1999

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— Bill Bradley's new best friends, whose numbers grow exponentially as his poll numbers progress arithmetically, say he will campaign on big ideas. But right now Bradley should not distract attention from Al Gore, whose difficulties multiply. And Bradley's recent foray into the politics of ideas did not make sensible people impatient for his next foray.

Gore knows that serving vice presidents who have wanted their parties' nominations have succeeded recently (Nixon in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, Bush in 1988). However, Bush in 1988 was the first incumbent vice president since Van Buren in 1836 to win the presidency. Bush won partly because a contented electorate wanted the closest thing to a third Reagan term. Not many voters next year are going to be thinking, "Gosh, it would be really neat to prolong the Clinton years!"

Democrats worry about polls that show George W. Bush, about whom voters know little, handily beating Gore in places like Michigan. This, in the record 97th month of peacetime economic expansion. And Gore keeps saying strange things. Never mind his I-was-a-hardscrabble-farmer and his I-invented-the-Internet riffs. Consider two recent beauties.

Pressed by some environmentalists to support aggressive measures to cut carbon dioxide emissions from cars and coal-burning power plants, Gore responded that he's on their side, but challenged them: "Name a senator who would support me." Does it occur to him that there might be something wrong with an agenda opposed by 100 senators?

Recently Gore, speaking of his book "Earth in the Balance," told Time magazine: "There's not a statement in that book that I don't endorse. Not one. The evidence has firmed up the positions I sketched there." Oh? What fresh evidence confirms that ours is a "dysfunctional civilization"? Or that automobiles pose "a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront"? Should we then be bombing Detroit instead of Serbia?

The certitude that Gore radiates carries an undercurrent of moral preening -- the suggestion that people who come to different conclusions are morally as well as intellectually flawed. On the evidence of Bradley's recent speech on race, he can match Gore stride for stride in the sanctimony sweepstakes.

Bradley's speech at Cooper Union in Manhattan was long on earnestness. We all should "look deeper into the soul of America" and pursue "racial healing" which is thwarted by "white indifference and black suspicion" and "the deadwood of superstition, fear and fantasy." Many white Americans "harbor absurd stereotypes about all people of color." We need "candid talk." And so on.

This is familiar. On July 10, 1991, in a remarkably unpleasant "open letter" to President Bush, Bradley accused Bush of hypocrisy and of "shamelessly" engaging in "race-baiting." On July 16, 1991, Bradley implicitly praised himself for "speaking candidly," and the "moral courage" to avoid "easy evasions" about race, by faulting others for not speaking as he does. His "candid talk" included falsely accusing Ronald Reagan of saying that "all female black Americans are welfare queens."

He even left the impression that the surge of murders among young blacks after 1984 was the result of Republican presidents, not crack cocaine. On April 30, 1992, after the Los Angeles riots following the initial acquittal of the police in the Rodney King case, Bradley again described America as "a society that does not talk honestly about race."

Bradley's belief that Americans are not sufficiently and properly preoccupied with race may resonate among Democratic activists. Many of them endorse identity politics, the theory that individuals are decisively shaped and irrevocably defined not by reasoned choices but by accidents of birth and socialization -- by membership in a racial, ethnic or sexual group.

However, it is arguable that identity politics, and obsessing about race, is a plague. Bradley wants to "overcome our divisions" and "get to a time when, in Toni Morrison's words, 'race exists, but it doesn't matter.'" But his self-advertised candor does not extend to even considering the possibility that reaching such a time is made more difficult by some things Democrats cherish -- affirmative action, categorical representation (the theory that the interests of a group can only be understood and represented by members of that group) and the rest of the racial spoils system.

Bradley cannot hope -- who can? -- to beat Gore in the sanctimony sweepstakes. So he should avoid implying that America's failure to measure up to his standard of racial honesty results not from honest differences of opinion among decent people, but from the moral inadequacies of those who do not share his opinions.

-- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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