Bill Bradley

Our Political Future

Air Date: January 17, 2015

Bill Bradley discusses his prescient past and future advocacy.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Across the political spectrum you would be hard-pressed to find a former public servant more committed to battling the status quo of entrenched partisanship – subject he’s written about in many recent books – than NBA Hall of Famer, former U.S. Senator from New Jersey and 2000 presidential candidate Bill Bradley.

After his decade-long tenure as New York Knicks shooting guard and small forward, today’s guest became a vocal advocate on the national political scene and, to many, the progressive conscience of the Democratic Party.

To quote one public radio report from the 2000 campaign: “The former New Jersey senator’s voting record on pro-environmental bills is 20 points higher than that of Vice President Al Gore.” And his unhindered support for universal health care, campaign finance reform and environmental stewardship predated the Democratic Party’s widespread adoption of these progressive positions.

Senator Bradley continues to reflect on the American political process, and I want to ask him today what he thinks the future holds.

How we can return to what one veteran Congressional staffer called in a 2012 book The Last Great Senate. If ever policy will trump personality … and who are the elected officials in our American future from either party capable of turning-around our troubled political system … Senator Bradley … it’s an honor to have you here today.

BRADLEY: Thank you, Alexander, it’s great to be here.

HEFFNER: So how about that … what will cure our ill political process.

BRADLEY: Well, I think there are a number of problems with the process … some are structural and some are personality.

I think the structural problems are that there’s way too much money in politics. When I ran for the Senate … the first time in 1978, I raised and spent about $1.5 million dollars. When John Corzine ran in the year 2000 he spent about $63 million dollars.

And that means politicians have to raise money that has a real impact on things. There are connections between contributions from say, the healthcare industry and no public health provision and healthcare law that passed.

Between the banking industry and a monstrosity of a bill in, in Dodd-Frank. And the same thing with energy contributions that lead to no energy bill.

So I think that money’s at the root of the problem and you’re never going to change that until you can amend the Constitution, given what Citizens United … the verdict in Citizens United said, I think in 2010, which basically said, you know, can’t limit money, can’t limit money of corporations, you can’t limit money anywhere.

So that’s the first problem. The second problem structurally is the way we draw Congressional District lines in America. And we do that by partisan State legislatures drawing lines to maximize their partisan advantage.

And that rewards the extremes because if you’re in a district and about … everything but about 50 Congressmen and Congresswomen are in districts that are 60/40, 55/45 so don’t have to worry about winning in the general election. They worry about primary challenges from the Left or from the Right.

And the result is they don’t reach across the aisle to talk to the other side. If you’re in a district, you’ve got 52/48, you need some Republican votes so you’ve got to talk. And that sets a stage where you have to talk when you get to the Senate or to the House of Representatives.

So, I think those are the two structural issues that I believe are fundamental to reinvigorating our democracy. We need public finance of elections, I think we need a Constitutional amendment to allow us to limit money in politics and we need to have State legislatures remove the power for redistributing … from state Legislatures and put it with a citizen commission, charged to draw Congressional district lines as contiguous as possible.

HEFFNER: Well, you do hear modern day office holders talk about the absence of conversation, bi-partisan conversation, but you don’t hear them talk about the need for Constitutional reform. And some Democrats who are in the Senate and, you know, across the government now, want to believe that a liberal leaning Supreme Court will achieve what you described … is that possible?

Or, or do we really … as a, as a party, do the Democrats have to push for a contemporary Constitutional Convention?

BRADLEY: Ah, you know, I yearn for a liberal Supreme Court. I don’t see the prospect for that in the next few years. I think the older members of the Court, those who are most likely to retire are the Liberals on the Court … Scalia’s the only one who’s older and Conservative. The rest are young.

So I think that pushing for a Constitutional Convention is, of course, one way to do it, and in the past, you know, we have always handled the problems of democracy through using the mechanisms of democracy.

For example, at the founding of the country, the House was, was elected by the people and the Senate by state legislatures. By the late nineteenth century there were corrupt State legislatures sending Senators to Washington that were literally on the payroll of banks and railroads.

So the movement started to have a Constitutional Amendment that would have the people select the, the Senators. That was blocked at every step along the way, over a ten year period, until the supporters of that Amendment got three-quarters of the states to say they were going to call a Constitutional Convention and within a matter of months, it passed.

And the threat of a Constitutional Convention was gone, the Amendment was passed, it’s now part of the Constitution where people elect Senators as opposed to state legislatures and ultimately that, that’s another route to go.

HEFFNER: I mean is it just that we’re so ill-informed as a country that we don’t’ even see that that is a viable solution, that is a viable path?

BRADLEY: Well, I think that we don’t see the connection as much as we should between money and policy. I mean people, you know, the Congress has very low ratings and partially people feel that there’s something wrong, but they don’t understand the direct connection between money and policy …

HEFFNER: And do they understand that the Constitution can be amended to affect the kind of change …


HEFFNER: … that you’re describing.

BRADLEY: … yeah, but it’s not just the people …


BRADLEY: … you have to have leaders who say “This is what we need to do.”

HEFFNER: So what does that breed of leadership look like? As we move towards 2016, the 2016 Presidential campaign?

BRADLEY: Well, unless someone chooses to highlight the structural problems that I’ve talked about, it’ll just be more of the same.

And that’s unfortunate because the country is so rich in talent and our history is so deep with reform movements that you need leaders who are going to step forward and lead. And that means on many areas, but certainly on structural democratic areas. Well, I just talked about money and re-districting.

Now what will happen is a politician will take a poll, and I know this because many have told me … and they’ll say, “Well, campaign finance reform is simply not on people’s minds. What’s on their minds are jobs, education, healthcare, pensions.” Well, that’s correct, but the reason you don’t get what you want on those other subjects is because you don’t have campaign finance reform …


BRADLEY: … and those who have the money tend to have an overdue influence in the process.


BRADLEY: That said, you know, we’ve never been in a time in American history where the individual’s empowered as much as, as people are today, given the Internet and the ability to organize through social media.

HEFFNER: I mean even though the situation may be worse than it was when you ran for President in 2000, do you think there was more cognizance of it back then? I mean when, when you were running for …


HEFFNER: … office, that message resonated with, with a certain subset of the electorate.

BRADLEY: Ah, the subset was too small …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

BRADLEY: … you know … or maybe the messenger was inept, but you know I certainly tried to highlight this …

HEFFNER: As, as a cancer.

BRADLEY: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: The campaign finance issue.

BRADLEY: When I left the Senate I said politics was broken, that was 1997. And since subsequent … we’ve had Citizens United, we’ve gone from $1.7 to run in New Jersey to $65 or $63 million dollars. And we have Congressional district lines drawn in America and many states look like strands of spaghetti, in order to maximize partisan advantage.

So, until those two things change, we’re going to have a very difficult situation. Now, it’s not impossible that there could be a leader that would transcend all that. But I don’t see that person on the horizon right now.

HEFFNER: Mmmmph. Is there a promise though for a grass roots campaign to mobilize this, this subset that you talk about?

BRADLEY: Well, it’s up to the people. I mean that’s clearly what happened with the Amendment to the Constitution that had direct election of Senators.

If people are fed up about this, they can start meet-ups about the Constitutional Amendment, they can, you know, organize through their own Facebook page, other social network opportunities and you can get people together, but, you know, as long as people feel that either they like pointing the finger and blaming someone else, rather than them taking action, nothing’s going to happen.

Or until leaders decide they’re unwilling to challenge the entrenched interests that “like it the way it is now” then it’s not going to happen. And so we need both leadership at the higher levels of government and we need an informed citizenry that begins to take organizing action themselves in order to produce the kind of society that I think most Americans deserve.

You know, our problems with this country are pretty clear. I mean if you’re a middle class family in America, you’ve had virtually no gain for more than 20 years. I mean per capita income is the same in 2013/14 … what it was in 1996.

And the result is that there are too many people in America who are beginning to say, “Well, what’s the American dream about?” I work hard every day, I sometimes work 2, 2 jobs, my wife works, or my husband works. And the result is that they begin to feel that they’re not going to get a head, that their kids aren’t going to have a higher standard of living.

And once that sets in, it’s very dangerous in America. Because we … are a country that’s been optimistic and has had a strong belief in the future. And to the extent that that’s endangered, that fundamentally changes America.

HEFFNER: But it seems that we’re paralyzed on the economic inequality question to protest in the streets. I mean we had the fleeting Occupy Movement. But you, you identify a strand of American complacency in that folks are upset with the current status of economic life, but their leaders are inadequate, they don’t represent them, and they’re not protesting, they’re not outraged.

BRADLEY: The question is how do you get the middle up and part of that will be financed by the wealthy. But a lot of it will also be other parts of the country helping out.

And so I think the question is, “How do you create good jobs? Technology and off-shoring have decimated a lot of jobs … 40,000 factories closed in the first decade of the, of the 21st century and 6 million Americans lost their jobs largely because of technology and off-shoring. And that’s not going to change.

And so I think what we have to head toward is, if you can’t tell me where the jobs are going to be generated, then we have to have a concept of life that says livelihood is important, how do we have our lives whole and that means having a much greater presence on the part of the State in the lives of people, in terms of giving them what I used to call when I was in the Senate, the Economic Security Platform …


BRADLEY: … where you have healthcare, you have reasonable pension and you have an opportunity to upgrade your skills …


BRADLEY: … and if you don’t have those things in place, then it falls on the private sector and then instead of dealing, just having a public option, or better a single payer system in healthcare you end up with having the healthcare law that we have now, which is a very complicated effort to preserve the private healthcare system.

And there are not a lot of people who are happy with this. There are not a lot of people that were happy with it before the, the Bill passed because and the question really is … do you deal with the fundamental issue? I mean, you know, a number of people were out talking about a single-payer system.

I know hundreds of doctors who say, “Gee, that’s what they would want.” They don’t have to deal with all the administration, they don’t have to battle insurance companies, they just do what they wanted to do when they became a doctor, which is practice medicine and be with their patients. And, you know, that’s, that’s not happening.

HEFFNER: I mean it’s amazing that that legislation did pass because in every other arena of domestic policy and in foreign policy and I want to talk to you about that, we seem, as a country hopelessly unable to compromise. And, and I wonder from your storied career, from basketball, from, you know, sport as a vehicle for kind of transmitting something larger than life … where do we look for that kind of inspiration to find compromise, to find unity?

BRADLEY: Ahemm, I think you have to look at the people who are in office now. And, you know, the combination of money and media plays a role in this … the shouting heads at each other on these ridiculous TV shows … they’re all caricatures of the, of a stereotype, shouting at each other …. their own talking points. As long as that’s what politics is …

HEFFNER: Well that’s the new …

BRADLEY: You don’t need … you don’t have to have that …


BRADLEY: I mean you have to have four or five Democrats and four or five Republicans who begin to talk to each other.

And I’ll tell you one thing, you know, we have had division before in America. We have had deep division and sometimes those divisions are unbridgeable. Right before the Civil War comes to mind.

But more often than not, what happens is some new force arrives and I would argue that unless there is a real effort to find compromise that …and move our country forward, that there could very easily emerge a third Congressional Party.

Not a Presidential Party, but a Congressional Party that has three or four objectives, whatever you want to say. Some education objective, some infrastructure objective and you run 50 people … in 50 Congressional seats and you win 25 and you are at the fulcrum of power and you trade all votes in order to get your four points passed. And something like that could emerge. And, of course, both parties would attack it, as if it was a ….

HEFFNER: Undemocratic, but probably it would create a more Democratic outcome. I mean that was like in the Senate, when you have Olympia Snowe … and Collins …

BRADLEY: Well, they tended to vote with Republicans when it came right down to it. And these …and the people who would be in this movement would be, you know, committed to the three or four objectives …

HEFFNER: The principles …

BRADLEY: And, you know, you get a couple run for the Senate, you get say one or two seats in the Senate out of four races. You get 25 members of Congress that would agree to run for re-election twice, so they’d have six years. And one Senate term and the idea would be six years for your country and at the end of that period of time I think that you could have shaken the system up in a way that it has never been shaken up before.

And so, I mean if you have a big movement out there, that tries to change things all at once, or you can pick 50 districts, you can recruit 50 people of real talent, say 25 former military officers, half men, half women and very diverse and run and get 25 seats and then you’re at the fulcrum of power.

HEFFNER: That seems more feasible then Constitutional overhaul or …

BRADLEY: Well, I don’t think their mutually exclusive …


BRADLEY: I think for example maybe one of the issues that the Third Congressional Party would focus on, would be the political reform in terms of a Constitutional Amendment and re-districting.

HEFFNER: Separate from that, what is your hope for the future of the Democratic Party?

BRADLEY: Well, my hope is that the party will speak to the real needs of where people are. And people in the party are trying to do that. Elizabeth Warren is trying to do that, for example. And I think that to the extent that there are people who speak to those needs, then people still have some hope. If it’s all a matter of negotiating behind closed doors in Washington among the various interest groups that are all lubricated by money, then people don’t have any hope, because they don’t have a place at the table.

And enough politicians for enough years have told them something’ss going to happen and it doesn’t happen to make them very suspicious. But I still think, you know, there are times when people can be inspired and that’s a very … I mean think of how you felt when Obama ran for the first time. I mean it was an inspiring campaign. He had a great opportunity and that could happen again.

But to the extent that you have people who are inside baseball, behind closed doors, mediating among the interest groups … that leaves out the bulk of the American people and disrespects the bulk of the American people.

HEFFNER: What about foreign policy, I mean it seems that we’ve been hit with a global pandemonium recently as kind of myriad of cases across the world that demand our attention … either humanitarian issues or conflicts that have the potential to expand their reach.

BRADLEY: I think that we have a basic decision to make. Unless we want to be an empire, we shouldn’t be involving ourself in as many places in the world as we involve ourself. An empire comes with cost … money costs and human lives and my sense is that this is a confusion in the way we form our foreign policy.

That we find people say, since even Vietnam that say that we have to respond to human tragedy in this part of the world, that part of the world. Or we have to liberate a country from a terrible dictator.

And they don’t think three or four steps down the road. I mean look at what’s happening in the Middle East now? Look at what’s happening in the Persian Gulf? What, what caused that? What’s one of the real problems?

The problem was we dismembered Iraq. I mean we basically …

HEFFNER: And, and the blow back from that has been more severe than Saddam Hussein remaining in power … most, most likely.

BRADLEY: Well, yeah, I mean … Saddam Hussein … the trump argument always was, “Oh, so you want Saddam to stay in power?” And if I think of American interests, true American interests and look, would I rather have Iraq today with Saddam Hussein in power or would I rather have an Iraq now that has the ISIS fanatics moving to create a Caliphate … the greater Syria Caliphate, which of course extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf …that’s what it was when the term was coined … I think I’d probably rather have somebody who was not my cup of tea, but there was a stability to the area.

HEFFNER: It seems that …

BRADLEY: I’m not for Saddam Hussein, you know, I’m glad that Saddam Hussein is gone. But for him to be gone by virtue of precipitating our involvement and all the tactical mistakes that were made … dismantling the Ba’ath Party, dismantling the military, etc., etc., thinking naively that they’d all be cheering when we go in. We jumped in the middle of a Sunni-Shiite split that’s been around for a thousand years and we were naïve about what that meant. And now you see it manifested in a very messy situation now and the American people have been … they, they’re tired. They’re not going to support empire and they’re not going to support deployment of troops.

And that’s why when you’re President of the United States and you decide you’re going to send troops somewhere, you’ve got to understand that’s a cost. And if you’re a super power and you send troops, you’ve got to win. If you don’t win then the rest of the world says, “Hey, that’s not so tough. They’re not so tough”. And then you begin finding your, you’re bitten from 15 different sides at once.

And to me, it’s something that we have been carried along really since Vietnam without ever really taking it two or three steps down the line. And if we don’t take it two or thee steps down the line, and think it through, we’re going to end up in terrible situations, all over the world, constantly.

I mean look at Libya. Right. Well, this was a great challenge, we intervened and we intervened to prevent genocide in Benghazi, or whatever, right. Except … and we got the Russians to support us. First time ever they supported us at the UN, that was years ago. And the first thing that happened after we got … suddenly the objective changes from rescuing people to regime change. And the result there, thinking about how one thing affects another, is Putin who was the Prime Minister … that’s finished. “I can’t deal with the Americans”. And I think that was a decisive moment. I also think that another decisive moment goes back a long way and that was the Soviet Union was dismantled, it’s Russia … right. And what’s the first thing we do … we expand NATO.

So people now say, oh, well, given what’s happened, aren’t you glad that NATO was expanded? Yeah, but that means you didn’t really take a chance with Russia.

And I remember and I spent a lot of time there and I remember a friend of mine who ran for President in 1996 … Gregori Valinsky and he, he told me after the election … said you know he’s out campaigning in Siberia and a person comes up to him and says “What do you think of America? Are they our friends?” And he says, “Of course, they’re our friend, this is a new day, the Cold War is over.” And the person says, “Well, if they’re our friend, why are they expanding NATO?”. And Zyuganov says, “You know, Russians might not understand puts and calls in a financial market, but they do understand tanks.”

So, what is our answer? And it was the ambiguity without clarity of distinction, trying to have it both ways, trying to expand it in order to please the some Eastern European countries and expanding NATO to hedge against the possibility the Russians would revert to their old ways as opposed to having a true partnership.

HEFFNER: Senator Bill Bradley, thank you so much for joining us and I hope we’ll continue this discussion of American interests and whether the blow-back from our invasion and intervention is endangering us or not. But thank you for now for joining us.

BRADLEY: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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