BILL Bradley, in his 18 years in the Senate, had a reputation for extreme caution. He not only looked before he leaped in taking positions on controversial issues, but he also sometimes did a fair imitation of a guy putting his ear to the ground before crossing the railroad tracks to make sure a train wasn't coming.
Last spring, as he conducted his low-profile campaign for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, he settled for being a listener to voters, turning aside reporters' inquiries for details of his agenda with promises he would spell them out later.
During the summer, he did begin to offer a few specific proposals on key issues such as gun control and campaign-finance reform. He made it a point to be a bit bolder on them than his only rival for the nomination, Vice President Al Gore, in what seemed clearly a courtship of his party's liberal wing.
With that stance, Mr. Bradley made himself an obvious target of the gun lobby and the campaign finance stand-patters, mostly in the Republican Party, but he hasn't sustained any appreciable political damage so far.
But his latest initiative, a call for extending government-supported health insurance and benefits to all children, to more poor families and to the elderly, is his biggest political risk to date. It invites the same sort of broadside not only from Republican politicians, but also from the free-spending insurance industry that famously scuttled the Clinton administration's proposal for universal health coverage five years ago.
The Clinton health care plan, conducted at first amid much secrecy and grandiose rhetoric, made it easy for its opponents to paint President Clinton, for all his claims to be a "New Democrat," as just another liberal big spender in the New Deal tradition. The Republicans pounded the Clinton plan (erroneously) on grounds patients would lose their right to choose their own doctors, and the insurance industry joined in effectively with its Harry-and-Louise homespun television warnings of inferior care.
The result was the worst domestic policy defeat of the Clinton years, forcing the administration to scale back ambitious plans for health care to a politically safer incremental approach.
In the proposal Mr. Bradley recently unveiled in Los Angeles, he took specific note of the Clintons' 1994 failure. "The lessons learned from the experience of the past," he said, ". . . are valuable guides today. Americans do not want a health care system controlled from the center by a massive bureaucracy . . . Americans do not want to be denied their right to choose their doctors or the direction of their treatment."
Mr. Bradley judiciously would leave existing insurance plans for most Americans in place and would extend the coverage to the uninsured through private plans, or the government plan that covers Congress and other federal employees, with the federal government paying the premiums for low-income parents and their kids. This approach may not disarm the insurance companies, but it may make it harder for them to combat it than they found the Clinton plan to be.
Mr. Gore has already offered his own approach for guaranteeing those now uncovered the ability to obtain health insurance, but Mr. Bradley dismisses the Gore proposal as "definitely timid."
Just as he did with his gun-control and campaign-finance reform proposals, Mr. Bradley has made a concerted effort to put forth a more liberal plan than Mr. Gore has.
Mr. Bradley says the health care specialists with whom he has consulted on his plan put the cost at between $50 million and $65 billion, and says he will pay for it out of non-Social Security surpluses. "This is a great deal of money," he said in Los Angeles, "but a campaign proposal without a price tag is just another politician's promise." And Mr. Bradley continues to insist, as a centerpiece of his candidacy, that he's not just another politician.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 10/04/99