WASHINGTON -- Choosing between Al Gore and Bill Bradley is about as good as it can get for Y2K Democrats. These are impressive men with impressive public records. Both have faults that the press is focusing on at the moment, but I have yet to hear the usual pre-nomination growls of Democrats threatening not to vote if their man is denied the nomination.
Whether or not he ever becomes president, Gore should be remembered as the greatest of vice presidents. A dubious honor, perhaps. But in talking recently to a dozen former assistants to President Clinton, it became obvious that Gore has often been an effective co-president, particularly in the first two years of the Clinton administration when the new president was bewildered much of the time.
Gore knew the ways of Washington -- almost to the point of being a new-age hack -- while Clinton was ignorant and hostile in the grand new surroundings of the White House. Gore knew how to run a meeting, how to bring issues to closure, and how to parcel out responsibilities and deadlines -- while Clinton was inclined to preside over endless bull sessions that pushed decisions further and further away.
Unfortunately, the vice president is an astoundingly bad campaigner, speaking his slow-talk, stilted and condescending. And, like it or not, that is an indication that he might have trouble with the most important part of the big job: pointing the way, bringing out the best in the American people.
He also seems drawn to exaggeration, in the manner of Jimmy Carter. I remember the columnist Robert Novak taking an instant dislike to Carter in the 1976 campaign. I asked him why once, and he said: "Carter is the guy you meet at a bar, smart, doing well, making $25,000 a year" -- this was almost 25 years ago -- "and when you ask him how much he makes, he has to say $30,000."
Bradley, on the other hand, does indeed seem comfortable with vision, seeing big ideas -- in a plodding way. I remember him, as a senator, systematically learning about one issue area after another. When he was a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, he was there not to make or change policy but to learn all he could about how secret things worked. He is an outsider, which people seem to want. But he is also a loner, which usually makes for ineffective administrations.
But, even if he could not run the White House very well, he might be better than Gore, in the paraphrased words of Harry Truman, at making the American people do what they ought to do anyway.
On substance, at least as measured by their Senate votes, Gore and Bradley were never that far apart. They were both in the Senate from 1985 to 1993, Reagan-Bush years. In those years, according to Congressional Quarterly, the two men differed on only 29 important votes. In general, Gore was more inclined to support those Republican presidents, particularly on defense spending issues. The senator from a hawkish Tennessee cast votes in support of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), for instance, while the senator from New Jersey voted "No." In one notable exception to that pattern, Bradley, then on the intelligence committee, voted for more U.S. aid to rebels fighting the communist government in Nicaragua -- supporting President Reagan, while Gore opposed the president.
So it is ironic (or political as usual) that at the moment, the two Democrats are attacking each other on old Senate votes. Bradley was embarrassed by a vote against flood relief and Gore by one relating to tobacco growers. It is fashionable to decry campaigns and analysis that raise style over substance, but in the case of Gore and Bradley, the style really is a more substantive difference than substance itself. They are close ideologically, but they are very different kinds of good men.
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