WASHINGTON -- Bill Bradley and Al Gore are bookish political moderates who have staked out leadership roles on issues from high-performance computing to interventionist foreign policies, while establishing voting records that are surprisingly similar.
So last week, when Friends of the Earth's political action committee endorsed Bradley over Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination, the question was not simply why the group abandoned a vice president who considers himself an aggressive environmental advocate. It was how the group could tell the two men apart.
"I was very perplexed by Friends of the Earth's decision," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "I just cannot see enough of a difference between them to make an endorsement based on their records."
The same conundrum will bedevil delegates of the Democratic National Committee today and this weekend as they gather in Washington to size up the candidates. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York's most prominent Democratic politician, endorsed Bradley yesterday, declaring that Gore "can't be elected." But the endorsement was not based on the candidates' stands on the issues.
Indeed, when Gore and Bradley, a former New Jersey senator, speak to the DNC tomorrow, they will provide a glimpse into just how similar they are. It will be their first appearance on the same program since the 2000 presidential campaign began.
And the DNC cattle call is just the beginning. The AFL-CIO will gather in Los Angeles next month to consider which Democratic candidate to back, with this choice: Over the course of his legislative career, Gore sided with the unions 88 percent of the time; Bradley backed labor on 86 percent of his votes.
"There's not a whit of difference between them," said Dan Yager, general counsel of LPA Inc., a business-backed labor policy firm in Washington.
Gay rights groups are finding a similar situation. Gore and Bradley have supported their agenda for expanding the definition of hate crimes and extending workplace protections to homosexuals. Where one has strayed, for instance to oppose same-sex marriages, the other has followed suit.
Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution who has compared the candidates' records, concluded that Gore and Bradley voted together 80 percent of the time. About 10 percent of their differences were chalked up to competing regional interests, not ideological divisions.
Where they parted
The final 10 percent were more significant. Bradley voted in 1981 for the deep budget cuts proposed by Ronald Reagan but against sweeping, 25-percent tax cuts, a move that proved his mettle as a budget hawk but risked the wrath of liberal constituents who opposed the paring back of social spending. Gore, then a member of the House, voted against both the budget and tax cuts.
Gore generally supported more defense spending and backed the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, while Bradley actively tried to trim Pentagon budgets and opposed the Persian Gulf War.
Bradley, representing a largely suburban constituency, tried to cut agriculture subsidies, which Gore consistently supported. The New Jersey senator was one of only three Democrats in 1992 to support a proposed voucher demonstration program for public education. Gore opposed it.
And while both men have supported major free-trade pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Gore occasionally voted for protectionist measures to support the South's declining textile industry.
"But let's not exaggerate this. These are very modest differences," Hess said, recalling former Alabama Gov. George Wallace's statement that "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between Republicans and Democrats.
"Well, maybe there's a dime's worth," Hess said.
It is not just voting records and issues that unite these two candidates. Both were raised in privilege: Gore the Harvard-educated son of a senator, Bradley the Princeton-educated professional basketball star. And both have remarkably similar personas. They are noted more for their grasp of issues than their charm or charisma.
"They're self-disciplined, not terribly gregarious, not particularly folksy, cerebral politicians," Pope summed up.
In the absence of bold policy differences, interest groups are examining minutiae.
In its endorsement announcement of Bradley, Friends of the Earth did not mention Gore's 1990 success in securing legislation mandating the phaseout of ozone-destroying hydrofluorocarbons, the Clinton-Gore administration's protection of 9.5 million acres of land in the Southern California and Utah deserts, its restoration of the Everglades and Sacramento Delta, the global warming treaty in Kyoto, tighter regulation of air pollutants or battles over logging and oil drilling.
Instead, the group excoriated Gore for slowing the phaseout of an agricultural fungicide called methyl bromide and for the administration's help in obtaining foreign aid for a nuclear reactor in the Czech Republic.
Bradley won plaudits for securing a 1992 law that shifted California water usage away from agriculture and toward the environment and urban areas. Bradley also fought for the 8,000-acre expansion of a New Jersey pine forest and the protection of 17,000 acres in the Sterling Forest of New York.
But weighing one candidate's achievements against the other's will be problematic with Bradley and Gore. Bradley won kudos from environmentalists when he filibustered a Republican attempt to open 20,000 acres of Utah wilderness to coal mining and oil drilling. But that wilderness had been set aside by the Clinton administration first.
Still, the Friends of the Earth revolt presents a problem for Gore, who as vice president had to put aside some of the convictions he could hold as a senator in order to deal with the broader demands of the entire government. The administration's compromises stand in stark contrast to the strident environmental advocacy that Gore exhibited in his book, "Earth in the Balance."
"We all had great expectations for" Gore, said Brent Blackwelder, president of the Friends of the Earth political action committee. "We followed him out onto the firing lines, but he chopped the limb out from under us. On issue after issue, we feel betrayed."
For now, most interest groups are not so quick to discount the favors they secured from the Clinton-Gore White House, even if those favors came in broad compromises. They acknowledge that Bradley does not present a clear alternative.
Last week, Bradley tried to secure support from the homosexual community by calling for an expansion of civil rights legislation to protect gay rights. While praising the idea, David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, was quick to say that Bradley and Gore have virtually identical records on gay issues. And, he added, Gore has trumped Bradley in "energy and commitment."
Labor -- perhaps the most powerful and well-financed Democratic constituency -- is similarly hesitant to forsake Gore.
Bradley has been courting the unions assiduously. But, said AFL-CIO officials, he has a long way to go to overcome the ties that Gore has created with union leaders over the past seven years.
Peggy Taylor, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, said Gore has been the most outspoken public official in Washington on labor organizing issues. He has infuriated labor leaders with his free-trade stand, but, if anything, Bradley has been more ardent in his advocacy of opening international markets.
In 1990, Bradley voted against limits on textile imports. Gore voted for the protectionist measure. Bradley fought efforts in 1991 to undermine Canadian gas imports, and he was one of the leaders in severing the link between human rights issues and China's most-favored-nation trade status.
Those efforts should not be overstated, Taylor said.
"Really, the two are almost indistinguishable on trade," she said. "And that is their major difference with us on policy issues."