Opinion: Bill Bradley's Blueprint is Right on the Money

Wednesday, May 09, 2012 - 03:43 PM

Former Senator Bill Bradley appearing on Meet the Press in 2007. (Getty)

There's something for everyone in Bill Bradley's new book We Can All Do Better, the former Senator's blueprint for a stronger, healthier, more united America.

Centrists in both major parties will agree with the voice that is willing to reprimand the extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. Critics of both major parties will be satisfied to see a former U.S. Senator decry the country's duopoly.

Conservatives will be happy that a man who made his post-basketball career in Democratic politics doesn't give President Obama a pass. Coffee-drinkers will smile that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — who has called for political donors to withhold support in protest of the polarized landscape — endorses the book on its front cover.

And never fear, liberals: There's plenty for us as well. Bradley champions more citizen involvement; less corporate control; significant investment in infrastructure, education, and employment' and limits on money in politics in his outline to rebuild the American Dream that worked for him and his family.

The something-for-everyone approach suits a book that consistently resonates with an appeal to "all" of us. Several of Bradley's chapters end with the appeal, "Can we all do better?" When I asked him who he was trying to reach with the book, his answer was as ambitious as it was honest: everybody.

In a phone interview, Bradley explained why the book's title, a relatively unobjectionable idea, needed to be said so clearly: "'All' doesn't appeal to all politicians," he said.

From the constant fundraising of political campaigns to gerrymandered districts; from the influence of lobbyists on the legislative process to the short-sighted framing of public debates; from the pressure to toe the party line to the power of extremes within each party (as seen in Senator Dick Lugar's primary loss to a Tea Party candidate in Indiana last night), politicians' success more often comes from effectively appealing to some, rather than advocating for all.

Appealing to one side, or even to 99 percent of Americans, isn't enough for this "one for all" Musketeer. While Bradley is careful not to equate the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, he views them as manifestations of a polarized political culture. He sees the Tea Party's program as having brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. His concern about Occupy, familiar to most Occupiers, is that he doesn't see their program at all.

Having been a senator for decades, Bradley thinks in terms of programs. His book moves quickly through idea after idea, at times attaching price tags, suggesting specific legislation, or even offering the type of trades that would bring both parties to the table. Just as quickly, the book will leap from policy minutiae to a higher-altitude view of what's eroding the American Dream and how we can win it back. In our conversation, he discussed his desire for a "can-do culture" and his book reads as a list of missed opportunities — "should-do's" — for the Obama administration.

Bradley is clearly disappointed with this administration, but not overly critical of the President. When he talks about changing the tax system, investing in infrastructure, dealing with the deficit, focusing on problem-solving, he sounds a good deal like the moderate Democratic President who has been serving for four years. Bradley acknowledges that they have much in common; he sees their differences more in scale: How much more could be invested in job growth, domestic industries, and transportation compared with what Obama asked for, and then the lesser amount he eventually achieved?

Bradley sees it as a false choice to deal with our structural deficit or plan for ambitious investment — he offers the "walking and chewing gum at the same time" solution.

Bradley also wishes the President had started his time in office with a direct push to get money out of politics. Each compromise that has limited the President's policies has been a result of intense, expensive lobbying efforts. While it's understandable that a politician may start on issues to which voters feel a more immediate connection, Bradley believes that the American people, who already overwhelmingly agree there is too much money in politics, are ready for candidates to make that case that reforming campaign finance and lobbying are key to reforming everything else.

Don't expect Bradley to be that candidate. This is an election year book, and he does dedicate a chapter to Americans Elect — an online process to create ballot access for a third party — but Bradley isn't reaching for his running shoes. On Americans Elect, which many liberals (including myself) have criticized, Bradley emphasizes that it is not a party itself, but a process. He admires it as an interesting idea, but not the only one. It may address "the closed nature of our duopoly," but "could end up in disaster."

When asked if he'd vote in the Americans Elect online primary, he acknowledged he had not registered on the site to do so.

Ultimately, Bradley wants innovation, and he gives the benefit of the doubt to new approaches involving more people.

"You either participate or you bear the consequences," he said. As for one of the more significant and messy forms of civic engagement since he served — the rise of the blogosphere, and the citizen journalists and muckrakers that go with it — his opinion was clear: He wishes blogs were around when he was in the Senate. "Blogs are a perfect example of the dynamic rich culture of citizen interest. The more, the better."

"The more, the better." "We can all do better." If Bradley sounds like an optimist, he is.

"We have a path forward. Don't despair," he concluded. "We've faced difficult problems in the past, we can face this too. Citizen involvement is still the most important part in the democratic process."

It's a lesson straight out of the Three Musketeers. In his appeal for us all to work together, he's hoping for a movement ready to shout, "All for one!" As he's shown, he's ready to respond, "And one for all."


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