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Righteous Centrist

Bradley's Un-sweeping Anti-poverty Plan.


Posted Thursday, October 21, 1999

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        Presidential candidate Bill Bradley unveiled his plan to fight child poverty at a church in Brooklyn this morning, and was there! What did I hear? A sensible, extremely modest, even snooze-inducing set of proposals: Bradley wants to increase the minimum wage, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Head Start program, and offer a couple of new child care subsidies. The plan includes no repeal of the radical 1996 welfare reform that Bradley voted against -- no restoration of the AFDC entitlement, no promise to end time limits or work requirements. The only modifications Bradley says he proposes to the welfare law are a) letting states increase the "maximum value of a car that a welfare recipient may own without losing food stamps," bringing it in line with the existing limit for Medicaid; and b) allowing child support payments to go to welfare mothers, supplementing their benefits, instead of going to states to reimburse the cost of those benefits. Total price tag for Bradley's plan (according to Bradley): a modest $9.8 billion a year. It's the sort of agenda someone like Bill Clinton might propose if, say, he were starting his last year as President. Or George Bush if he were starting his first.

        The problem, of course, is that Bradley accompanied this centrist incrementalism with rhetoric of soaring moral pretension. "I speak today for justice," he announced -- "the very meaning of America ... is again under assault. ... To allow this kind of poverty to exist in America is simply unacceptable ... unconscionable." Bradley said he is not satisfied with "lifting a small percentage of children out of poverty." What's needed is "a wholesale rescue effort." "It is time for a change," he declared. Perhaps the audience at Concord Baptist Church didn't realize that the change Bradley was talking about was a change in the food stamp car allowance.

        When it comes to poverty, at least, Bradley thinks like the bastard child of Dick Morris and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, but he acts as if he were Martin Luther King. He wants to "eliminate child poverty." No, wait a minute. He wants to "eliminate child poverty as we know it." Today's proposals, to the extent they differ from the status quo, would indeed only lift "a small percentage of children out of poverty."

        This is the essential fraud of the Bradley campaign. It is by now completely evident to the press corps covering him. The revealing question is why? Why couldn't Bradley just be honest, and say "Under a Democratic President, we're finally making good progress against poverty. Child poverty has fallen to its lowest level in two decades. But we're not done. That's not good enough. I plan to stay on our current, encouraging course, but with a few tweaks to help poverty fall even faster"?

        The most obvious reason is that Bradley righteously opposed the welfare revolution that helped put us on our current course. Bradley aides deny that the minimalism of his proposals amounts to a tacit admission by their candidate that he was wrong when he let Senator Moynihan con him into voting against the welfare bill. But of course it is; if welfare reform was wrong, why wouldn't Bradley try to repeal it if he became President? Admitting this out loud, though, might upset the paleoliberal Democratic activists in Iowa -- and anyway, admitting error isn't something men of Bradley's moral vanity like to do.

        Even explaining his current substantive incrementalism would probably require that Bradley tell paleoliberals things they don't want to hear -- like that we can't end poverty in the long term by simply sending cash to poor people, that culture and values matter more than even money, that the most important thing we can do is get everyone working and then try to offer supports that will let even low-wage workers lead mainstream lives. Bradley doesn't seem to want to say those things, perhaps even to himself. So the public contradiction of his candidacy is left sitting there. In private, Bradley's aides suggest, somewhat sleazily, that when Bradley says this is just a "down payment" in the antipoverty fight he means there are other, more dramatic -- and anti-welfare-reform -- steps he'll take down the road. (Why "sleazily?" Well, if Bradley has further plans, why not let the voters know now?)

        In purely strategic terms, Bradley's schizo battleplan may well work, if it is left undisturbed. The political left today (like the far right during the Reagan campaigns) is so hungry it will be satisfied with strong rhetoric, tiny proposals, and Clintonesque hints of bigger things to come. (Exhibit A: Bob Herberts' column in today's New York Times.) Meanwhile, Bradley says nothing that will deter independents and moderates from voting for him for their own, non-poverty-related, reasons. True, Bradley's rhetoric/substance gap does raise issues of character, and voters can be harsh on candidates who seem to be trying to be something they're not. But -- unlike, say, Dick Gephardt posing as a populist outsider in 1988 -- Bradley isn't necessarily trying to be something he's not. He may really be narcissistic enough to think he's fighting a great '60s civil rights crusade when he's really only expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. The contradiction seems a genuine part of him.

        To beat him, then, Gore will have to forcefully remind mainstream, non-liberal voters of the unappealing aspects of Bradley's contradiction, specifically his opposition to the welfare law that he now, with crusading zeal, would ... well, leave in place. (Click here if you want to see this point beaten to death in an earlier item.) As a current Gore supporter, my great fear is that Gore's advisers -- especially consultant Bob Shrum, whom I admire -- are too liberal, too idealistic, and too wary of Iowa's "Stay and Fight" caucusers to viciously go after Bradley for a welfare vote that they themselves basically agreed with. It was not encouraging when a Gore aide appeared at today's Bradley event and handed out copies of a quick-response leaflet attacking Bradley, not for his '96 vote, but for an '81 vote that -- the leaflet said -- "Removed 493,000 Families from AFDC." That won't have much broad voter appeal, outside of Iowa at least. And it won't end Bill Bradley as we know him.

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Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

Gore's Secret Weapon

posted 08.03.99