Would Bill Bradley be the next Jimmy Carter?
Several of Bradley's former colleagues in Congress, along with journalists and Bradley's former chief of staff, debated that question at a forum in Washington on Tuesday.
Panelists at the forum described Bradley as a bright, detail-oriented, highly effective policy strategist. But they also drew comparisons between the former New Jersey senator and Carter, who is widely viewed as a micromanager who was too independent to work effectively with Congress to achieve his goals.
"I hope [Bradley] is not as detailed as Jimmy Carter was [if] he gets to be President," said Dan Rostenkowski, former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The forum, sponsored by the Transition to Governing Project, a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Hoover Institution, was the first in a series looking at the governing styles and approaches of the leading presidential candidates.
Bradley is "certainly not a micromanager," argued Marcia Aronoff, who served as his chief of staff in the Senate from 1978 to 1991. "But he will get heavily involved in things he's interested in."
On his staff, said Aronoff, Bradley sought people "with a breadth of experience, not just people who felt that the first and only answer to any problem was a government program."
Several panelists praised Bradley for working with members of both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives to win passage of key pieces of legislation to overhaul the tax code and reform the California water system in the 1980s.
"I thought, if you had to get into a foxhole, this is somebody you wanted to be with because he's not going to leave," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who worked with Bradley on the water reform effort. Miller is supporting Bradley's presidential bid.
Bradley is "effective at teambuilding," Aronoff said. "His entire career has been built around working with people. He is willing to play a nonvisible role to get things done."
Other panelists, however, noted that outside of the tax and water bills, Bradley tended to walk his own path in Congress. "I think Bradley as President would have a tough time bending to negotiate deals," said Rostenkowski. "At the same time, I think he is probably one of the brightest candidates."
Bradley may also be hindered by his lack of experience in running an organization as large and diverse as the federal bureaucracy. In a new roundup on the major presidential candidates, Washington Monthly magazine gives Bradley a grade of "D" on his potential ability to run the government, noting that he has never worked in the civilian executive branch and that his only military service was in the reserves.