Bradley: spice in the Velveeta

Over the last 10 years, the American political scene has become the equivalent of Velveeta cheese. Anything not pasteurized, homogenized, and bland is not really wanted. And this has made politics, particularly presidential politics, a very weird scene. For those who wish to be real contenders a campaign is a delicate balancing act wherein each desperately tries to seem enough like everyone else to capture the middle ground while simultaneously differentiating himself on small, often absurd points.

This is the reason we have campaigns that often focus on such burning issues as a candidate's stance on the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now, into this bleak picture comes Bill Bradley. He might be just the ticket to inject some excitement into the 2000 campaign. And that's a good thing, because on its present course it is threatening to put the American electorate to sleep with a frightening amount of mildness.

I'm not talking about the campaign's tone here, or the likelihood that there will be some barbed words along the way. You can always count on a few nasty jabs in a presidential race, but that's not really what makes a race interesting.

The Bradley candidacy could shake this race at a much more elemental level - making it about something other than cash, cocaine use, and who's best at saying nothing.

In last week's speech announcing his candidacy, the former Rhodes scholar, NBA star, and senator essentially dared his fellow aspirants to talk about something serious.

Rather than offering small fixes, he proposed that government take on the big issues affecting this country - poverty, health care, and guns - with big proposals like large-scale programs for the poor and universal health care while the economic good times might still pay for them.

"In so many ways, we have failed to use our prosperity to improve the well-being of all our citizens," he told the crowd in Crystal City, Mo. "Shouldn't we be fixing our roof while the sun is shining?"

This is not a safe strategy.

While Bradley intends his ideas to make him seem a visionary, there is probably a better chance they'll brand him an old-line liberal. After all, it was the current Democratic president who declared "the era of big government is over."

Furthermore, Americans aren't exactly in the fixing-up mood right now. They're having too much fun enjoying high times.

As is usually the case when times are good, there is more interest in spending the extra cash on an evening out rather than a trip to the hardware store. And when it's the federal government proposing to be Bob Vila, you can expect that disinterest to turn into an avalanche of opposition.

Of course, this attitude hasn't gone unnoticed by the big names in the 2000 campaign - Bush the Younger and Al Gore - which is why both are tackling the tough issues like proposing tax breaks to encourage people to give more to local charities.

Even reporters here in Washington, who take great pride in pointing out the differences between Brand X and Brand Y, can often be heard saying that they don't see much difference between Al and George W.

And in Congress, the GOP is trying to take the good-time feelings to new heights.

They have decided to make their proposed tax cut into a campaign issue, boiling the election down to a kind of cheesy car salesman's rebate offer - "vote Republican and get up to $5,000 cash back!"

But maybe, just maybe, Bradley's ideas can give this campaign a little life.

Even those who don't agree with Bradley's ideas, and many won't, have to see there is something to his reasoning. If we don't want to fix America's long-term problems now, when will we?

Well, the best guess is that we will wake up when the next recession hits and remember that things aren't as great as we thought they were. The schools will still be crumbling. All those people who got jobs from welfare reform will still be short on skills and education.

Of course, at that point the politicians here in Washington, sensing the shift in the public mood will all call for changes that we can't afford to problems that have become more intractable.

And that's why Bradley deserves some credit. Even if you don't like his answers he has at least raised the questions. And if we're lucky, he may raise the stakes of this campaign and give it some life.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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