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Government and Politics

Posted at 10:18 p.m. PST Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Bradley's fatal mistakes

Aversion to negative campaigning, lack of warmth doomed him

New York Times

Magic was in the air as Bill Bradley returned to his hometown last September. Pundits and pollsters swooned, Vice President Al Gore's campaign was in disarray and Bradley launched his own presidential race with a speech as lofty as his plays as a high school basketball star in that very same gymnasium.

And then Bradley crashed back to earth. As one looks back to understand the collapse of his presidential bid, perhaps the most telling moment came not during Bradley's thoughtful speech that day in Crystal City, Mo., but rather in his encounter with Rita Thuesen.

Thuesen, who was Bradley's second-grade music teacher, went before the television cameras to describe the seed of a president in her old runny-nosed pupil. Then, as the crowd brimmed with emotion, she walked over to where Bradley and his wife, Ernestine, were sitting. If ever in the history of politics there was a hugging time, this was it.

``I stopped in front of them and told Ernestine that I hoped she would be dancing with Bill in the White House,'' Thuesen recalled. ``And Bill just sat and looked at us.''

Eventually, Bradley's wife prodded him and he gave his teacher an awkward hug. But that emotional reserve, that profound detachment -- even shyness -- never left him, and his campaign faltered in part because he often failed to establish an emotional bond with voters.

Bradley will appear with his wife today in West Orange, N.J., to announce the inevitable -- that he is giving up a campaign that began with such promise, only to end without achieving a single primary victory.

The tale of how Bradley's campaign collapsed underscores a few lessons about American politics today.

First, as George W. Bush must be noticing, a sitting vice president with strong party backing is a formidable competitor and enjoys a huge advantage when the American economy is purring along in its longest expansion in history.

Second, voters may be angered by negative campaigning, but it works. In the fall, analysts bet that voters would be turned off by smarmy politicians fighting like wolverines, but in the end the public also seemed to want a candidate tough enough to defend himself. Bradley's attempt to run a high-brow, high-minded campaign sometimes conveyed wimpiness, and one lesson may be that positive campaigners get torn apart by those wolverines.

Third, in Democratic primaries, traditional constituencies like labor unions and members of minority groups still matter enormously. In retrospect, one of the death blows to Bradley's campaign came just as it seemed to be taking off. The first primary, in a sense, came back in October when the AFL-CIO endorsed Gore.

Above politics

At the time, though, Bradley was still rising in the polls, staying even with Gore in raising funds and attracting admiring publicity from the news media. Bradley inspired some people with the impression that he was above politics, running less as a 21st-century politician than as an Old Testament prophet, and he deliberately packaged himself as the package-less candidate, wearing scruffy suits and disdaining the hurly-burly of political attacks and counterattacks.

Bradley set the tone at the first of his debates with Gore, in Bedford, N.H., in October. A woman asked Bradley to comment ``on the behavior of the '96 Clinton-Gore campaign as it relates to fundraising.'' Rarely has such a lob been pitched to a candidate, but Bradley refused to swing.

``I think there were obviously some irregularities that have been addressed,'' Bradley said mildly, and he then noted that both candidates agree on some ideas to improve the campaign-finance system.

Why the reluctance of Bradley to employ his best weapon, indignation at Gore's aggressive fundraising?

``There was an ongoing discussion in the campaign in early October about the level of response and how much the candidate should be involved in the negativity,'' recalled one of Bradley's top advisers.

The conclusion was that Bradley should stay above the fray, apparently for two reasons. The first was tactical, that Bradley would sully his appeal if he engaged in typical political brawls, and that commentators and journalists would keep the issue alive instead. The second was an apparently genuine distaste on Bradley's part for attack politics and a feeling that it was beneath him.

The high-mindedness appealed to many Democrats who were sick of conventional politics. But it also left a huge opening for Gore, who throughout his career has been gentlemanly when possible and a street fighter when necessary.

Delicately at first, Gore began taking jabs at Bradley. The vice president warned that Bradley's health care plan -- an ambitious proposal that aimed to help the poor and members of minority groups -- was too ambitious and would cost too much. Bradley did not hit back.

In mid-November, Gore raised the stakes. It was a sunny day in Pasadena and Gore was fiery as he stood in his shirt sleeves and offered a different critique of his rival's health plan. Gore told a gathering sponsored by an African-American group that Bradley was trying to ``dismantle Medicaid'' in ways that would hurt blacks, Latinos and the poor.

``Any plan that tears down Medicaid leaves African-Americans and Latinos out in the cold,'' Gore declared. He added: ``I would call on Senator Bradley to reconsider a program that has such a harsh impact on low-income and working families in this country.''

Bradley and his aides were stunned.

Privately, Bradley was steaming. But the campaign simply released a measured statement accusing Gore of ``scare tactics and divisiveness.''

The lesson, for the Gore campaign, was that Bradley would not hit back. And so in the coming weeks, Gore began battering Bradley from every direction.

Acted as own adviser

An underlying problem was that Bradley was not terribly good at taking advice. In contrast to President Reagan, who recruited first-rate campaign advisers and happily stood on the spot they marked for him to get the best television angle, Bradley attracted advisers who were as scornful of political games as he was. And while he listened to suggestions, Bradley acted in effect as his own campaign manager.

``His advisers reinforced Bill's worst tendencies,'' said one aide, who asked not to be named but who, like others, now believes that bad campaign strategy helped sink their candidate.

Another senior aide said of the inner circle: ``These people were always concerned about what their relationship with Bill would be, as opposed to just doing what it takes to win. It should have been, `I don't care what you think of me, I want to win.' ''

As the 2000 campaign unfolded, there came to be growing doubts that Bradley had what it took to win -- especially the ruthlessness and the furious, uncompromising, tenacious lust for power.

With Gore slamming blow after blow at Bradley, and often distorting his positions, many of Bradley's field organizers were eager to fight back. But the candidate and his high command -- all of whom believed that they needed to take the high road -- kept reining them in.

In New Hampshire, Bradley's state director, Mark Longabaugh, was seething with frustration as he watched Gore attack Bradley's health care plan as both too costly and also inadequate. One day, when Gore visited a series of New Hampshire pharmacies to attack Bradley's health plan, Longabaugh had had enough.

Using his desktop computer, Longabaugh created a satire of a prescription form that caustically mocked the vice president. The form prescribed medicine for ``Gore-itis,'' whose symptoms include ``uncontrollable lying.''

``Take a healthy dose daily, especially when talking about the Bill Bradley health plan,'' the sheet said. ``Failure to do so may result in uncontrollable negative campaigning.''

In sharp contrast to Bradley's muted response to attacks, the vice president personally complained about the flier. He accused the Bradley forces of campaigning by ``personal invective.''

Senior Bradley aides were appalled by the flier and feared that it would conflict with his positive message. So they ordered Longabaugh to apologize, and Bradley's campaign chair, Douglas C. Berman, issued an apology of his own.

``This flier is not characteristic of Bill Bradley nor the style in which he has run this campaign,'' Berman said.

The retraction was barely noticed at the time. But within both campaigns it became a symbol of how easy it was for the Gore campaign to shove Bradley without getting pushed back.

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