The Bradley Republicans

By most conventional standards, Robert L. Burch III is an unlikely supporter of Bill Bradley. A 65-year-old executive at a New York hedge fund, Burch detests teachers' unions, trial lawyers, and liberal special interests. He believes in school vouchers, Social Security privatization, welfare reform, and, unhesitatingly, the Laffer Curve. "The press would call me conservative," says Burch, "but those labels are misleading."

No matter that Bradley, a centrist liberal in the Senate, is by all appearances running a liberal-progressive campaign for president. "It's not an issue-centered campaign, because the issues aren't as important as Bradley's presidential character," says Burch, who helped sponsor Bradley's Madison Square Garden extravaganza and held a fundraiser last August at his summer home in East Hampton. "I trust Bradley to do the right thing in a moment of crisis." Such is his confidence that Burch believes the early years of a Bradley presidency would witness tax cuts, a voucher plan, Social Security privatization, and other initiatives normally associated more closely with, say, George W. Bush.

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To Bradley's demonstrated powers of political enticement we can now add mind control: an ability to convince even conservative voters that he is simply too intelligent, sincere, and thoughtful to do anything but the right thing--whatever the voter believes that to be. Because according to the Pew Center for the People & the Press's latest "Political Typology" report, Burch is not alone. Fully 31 percent of "Staunch Conservatives," the most right-leaning group on the report's scale, say there is a chance that they will vote for Bradley, as do 31 percent of "Moderate Republicans"--roughly the percentages of a candidate with rather more sterling conservative credentials, John McCain (39 and 31, respectively). This, for a candidate who says he wants to spend billions more on public schools and Head Start, use the federal budget surplus to shore up Social Security, mandate gun licenses, and allow gays to serve in the military.

Though not yet a movement, the Bradley Republicans are nevertheless an interesting slice of the electorate. In the Northeast, where Bradley is as well-known as Gore, the supposedly more liberal Bradley does significantly better than the supposedly more centrist vice president among (supposedly) Republican voters. According to a Quinnipiac College poll from mid-December, 17 percent of New York State Republicans would vote for Bradley in a two-way matchup against Bush, versus 12 percent for Gore. Twenty percent of New Jersey Republicans would vote for Bradley, which is not too surprising, as would 15 percent of Connecticut Republicans, which is. Small numbers, to be sure--but fairly significant ones against a seemingly moderate, business-friendly Republican like Bush.

And though their numbers are small, those voters are politically significant: mostly wealthy, white, male, nominal Republicans, occasionally with Roman numerals after their names and usually with ample wallets. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, New York City's zip code 10021-- not the limousine-liberal Upper West Side, mind you, but the WASP-Republican Upper East Side--is in both Bush's and Bradley's top five. As of the third quarter Federal Election Commission filings, Bush had taken in $436,120 from 10021. Bradley had collected $493,775, making 10021 his highest-grossing zip code. His second-highest, as it happens, was 10128, which is also on the Upper East Side. In fact, Bradley has taken more money out of the New York metro area than any other candidate for president. A good portion of it has come from Wall Street, with employees of six large accounting and financial firms (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup) putting those companies on both Bradley's and Bush's list of top 10 contributors. Such domains are, if not monolithically Republican, at least predominantly so--and certainly could be expected to be Bush country.

Even beyond New York, Bradley has managed to attract the support of a number of wealthy Republican businessmen. Among CEOs of the 1,000 biggest companies in the United States, according to BusinessWeek, Bush has the backing of about 75 percent of those who have donated to a candidate. But Bradley places a surprising second, supported by twice as many CEOs as Gore and four times as many as John McCain. One example: Johnson & Johnson CEO Ralph S. Larsen, a registered Republican and chair of the Business Council (an old, exclusive, and high-powered corporate round table), has given to both Bush and Bradley. Preston Haskell, president of Jacksonville, Florida-based Haskell Company and a 1960 Princeton graduate, has been on the Bradley team since the beginning even though, as he puts it, "I've never voted for a Democratic president in my life." Why Bradley? "My great admiration for his character, his intellect, and his leadership qualities," says Haskell. "While I don't agree with him on every domestic issue, that's really not as important as his leadership and his grasp of the issues."

Call it the Princeton vote, whose networking and money (and connections to other people with money) could help Bradley overcome the vast institutional and fundraising advantages held by a sitting vice president--a vice president who raised half as much as Bradley during the last three months of 1999.

Liberals' enthusiasm for Bradley is no mystery. Republican enthusiasm for Bradley is a little more puzzling, not least because his positions stand in sharp contrast to the usual Republican line (Bradley is strongly pro-choice, for instance, and more pro-gay than any other candidate), and even the usual moderate Republican line. One explanation is that Bradley tends not to be dogmatic; he has expressed support for a limited experiment in school vouchers, and his 1986 tax reform did, after all, end up cutting taxes for the wealthy. Another is that for all his liberal Democrat trappings, Bradley has always been, in demeanor if not in substance, something of a nonpolitician--a quality that appeals to many voters regardless of party.

But for some people, liking Bradley seems almost instinctual, an impulse merely of trust. And if many liberals trust Bradley based partly on his credentials, Bradley Republicans seem to trust him in spite of his credentials, showering him with the kind of rapturous, unscripted enthusiasm rarely seen outside campaign rallies. "I am so impressed by the way he comes to his positions," says Leslie Roach, a Connecticut Republican who is pro-choice and not quite sure she agrees with Bradley's health care proposal. "I have to depend on someone who I think can think clearly and honorably. I trust him to make the right decision for his country." Her husband Curtiss, an investment executive in New York, says that although he's a registered Republican who voted for George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, "this is the first time ever that I've seriously thought about re-registering, in order to get Bradley on the ticket."

But perhaps such longings are natural. Since 1994, the Rockefeller Republicans of the Northeast have searched, fruitlessly, for a champion. And Bradley, unlike Bush--who despite his pedigree is a little too Christian and a little too southern--is One of Them. His basketball celebrity, a boost among any constituency, is especially intoxicating to affluent cosmopolitans who rooted for him and the New York Knicks from MSG skyboxes in the 1970s. Yet Bradley is also an intellectual: a Princeton graduate and Rhodes Scholar who, unlike a certain other Rhodes Scholar who ran for president, exudes a genteel, Oxfordian sensibility. And Bradley is no outsider to business circles. He specialized in tax law and global finance on the Senate Banking Committee, met regularly with business leaders during his three terms, and served as vice chair of J.P Morgan's International Council after leaving Washington--all of which make Bradley an honorary Wall Streeter. (Gore's only nonpolitical job, journalism, is despicable at best.) Other candidates may share some of these qualities, but only Bradley brings it all together in a thoughtful, independent-seeming, and acceptably liberal fashion. He is the Jock, the Scholar, and the Big Swinging Dick all rolled into one.

It's natural that, at a time when voters have little patience for partisan ideologues and even less for party loyalty, something as unwonkish as "character" would emerge as the defining issue of the 2000 election. But the most politically useful aspect of running as a character candidate is that as a campaign issue, character is nicely fungible, which is to say it appeals equally well to voters of any stripe. If a candidate today is thought to have good "character," it doesn't matter as much what else he has (or hasn't) got going for him (or her). The bad news for Gore is that you can't issue policy papers outlining your position on the character issue. The bad news for Bush is that you can't buy the character issue--not even with $67 million.

The good news for Bradley and McCain is that they have been deemed, by the voters as much as the media, to have character. And this makes them fungible, which goes a long way toward explaining the weird Bradley-McCain crossover vote in New Hampshire--and damn their positions on gun control (Bradley for, McCain against) and abortion rights (Bradley strongly for, McCain strongly against). Both candidates can mine the vast and growing ranks of independent voters. Bradley, moreover, gets the best of both worlds: In a sort of electoral pincer movement, Bradley raises money and support from wealthy Republicans and wealthy Democrats alike, and excites the Democratic base with a progressive campaign platform.

Will it be enough? Gore has slightly more money in the bank; the endorsement of 11 governors, 122 members of Congress, and 24 senators, most recently Senator Edward Kennedy, the archliberal himself; the backing of most of the big unions and nearly all the organizational backbone of the Democratic Party; and the benefit of eight years spent planning his run. But there is at least one recent example of a presidential candidate who campaigned as an outsider, ran well away from the center during the primaries, and yet still managed, in the general election, to amass a landslide's worth of swing voters: Ronald Reagan. ยค