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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Former senator and basketball hall-of-famer Bill Bradley writes that the country is in a slow-motion crisis: Our predicament is like that of the frog in the pot of water on the stove who doesn't notice the temperature rising until it's too late.

Bill Bradley stepped away from politics, largely, after he failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination 12 years ago. But in a new book, he confesses that he misses public policy, and so sets out a series of arguments about how to get the economy back on track, about the corrosive role of money in politics and about the need to change what he calls a messianic foreign policy.

If you have questions for Bill Bradley - the Knicks got eliminated last night, so we can skip that part - the number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, what's changed following President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage. You can email us now: talk@npr.org. But first, former Senator Bradley joins us here in Studio 3A. He's now a managing director of an investment bank, Allen & Company. His latest book is "We Can All Do Better." And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

BILL BRADLEY: Well, Neal, good to be with you and back on NPR.

CONAN: I'd like you to tell us a story about your first term, I think, a moment when Social Security was in crisis - sounds familiar. And you set up a series of town meetings where you expected to hear senior citizens say, now, don't cut my benefits, whatever you do, and then to hear their children say don't raise my taxes.

BRADLEY: That's exactly right. You know, I was new in the Senate, about my third or fourth year, and here I was told that Social Security is about to go bankrupt, and there would be a presidential commission that was established who would make recommendations.

And I needed to try to get a feel for what my constituents in New Jersey felt about it. So I had a professor from the state university, Rutgers, accompany me on at least 12 separate meetings around the state, and there would be three or 400, 500 people there.

And the professor would put up on the board what the crisis was and what the options were to solve the problem. And, you know, talking to the politicos, they said, you know, well, all of the people who are working would just want to cut the benefits of the elderly, and the elderly would just like to increase taxes on the working people, and neither one of them would want to see the retirement age raised.

Well, what I found was something quite contrary, because the elderly were grandparents and parents, and they did not want their children to bear the full burden of fixing Social Security by having a gigantic tax increase. And the children were daughters and sons, or granddaughters and grandsons, and they did not want to see the full brunt of solving the problem by cutting the benefits of their loved ones.

And therefore, all four of them said - both of them said that in terms of retirement age, it would be OK if it was far enough out so people could plan. And that's exactly what we ended up doing back in 1983. We cut some benefits. We increased some taxes, and we extended the retirement age to 67 and solved the problem for another, you know, 40 years, 45, 50 years.

And that's - the point there is that I think people like it if politicians put country ahead of party and tell them the truth. I think the American people can accept the truth to a degree far beyond what the consultant community and the active political community believe.

And to me, that's the key to our future. And so in writing "We Can All Do Better," I was not only implying that we can do better on our economy and we can do better in our foreign policy and in the structure of our democracy, but I was also implying - given the challenges we face in the world today - that each of us has to be at his or her own best. And even if we're at our best individually, ultimately, our success as individuals, as a group, will depend upon the success of the nation.

CONAN: 1983, of course, is a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and Democrats control Congress - that kind of compromise hard to imagine today.

BRADLEY: That's true. A lot's changed since then. But keep in mind, Ronald Reagan - who's not exactly anything other than a conservative icon - always compromised at the end of the day in order to get something done. And now that's very difficult to imagine, particularly given the view of some of the Tea Party Republicans, that the era of collegiality is over and that the era of confrontation has begun, until they win.

CONAN: Did you read Senator Lugar's comments?

BRADLEY: I didn't read his comments. I read what his opponent said. And I just quoted back what he had said, roughly paraphrasing.

CONAN: His idea of bipartisanship is Democrats move to his side.

BRADLEY: Right, exactly.

CONAN: That...

BRADLEY: And you know the amazing thing about that, Neal, is it shows a profound lack of understanding of the country. If people didn't make compromises, we wouldn't have had a Constitution. And in the book, I talk about, you know, the new United States of America. George Washington's president. During the war, a lot of debts were accumulated by the federal government and by state governments.

And Washington, realizing he wants to have a fully strong and supportive government, and Hamilton says we've got to be credit-worthy, then clearly, they argue, the federal government has to take over the debts of the states. And Jefferson, who's from Virginia, that is frugal and managed their money well and paid back most of the debts, will have nothing to do with it.

They don't want to pay back the - they don't want to have the federal government bailout spendthrift states. So they get to an impasse. Washington says solve the problem. Hamilton comes to Jefferson and says: Well, look. Would you get the Virginia delegation to support federal assumption of debt if we move the national capital from New York to the banks of the Potomac? Jefferson said: You've got a deal. We're in Washington, D.C. tonight.

And the United States, the new United States was enormously creditworthy, which mean only a few years later, when Napoleon decided to sell us the Louisiana Purchase, we could afford to buy it. And we bought it for $15 million and bought - doubled the size of America, and 11 of the 15 was credit, borrowed from other people.

CONAN: As you look at politics today, you have - a lot of people say the kind of citizen movements, you talk about that a lot. But you have not a lot of kind things to say either about the Tea Party or, for that matter, about Occupy Wall Street.

BRADLEY: Well, I try to be realistic as I perceive the two. I mean, there's a big difference between the two. And the Tea Party basically had one clear objective: roll back government. And they also decided to immediately get involved with electoral politics. And in 2010, they elected 43 members of Congress who were Tea Party Republicans.

Flash-forward summer of 2011, Speaker Boehner and President Obama, they get an agreement on principal and three to $4 trillion in debt - deficit reduction over 10 years. Boehner takes it back to his caucus, and the Tea Party Republicans say absolutely not. And the country is brought to the brink of bankruptcy. That's how quickly things can change.

People say, oh, well, we can't change our circumstances. Nobody ever heard of the Tea Party three years ago. So, on the other hand, you take a look at Occupy, which called attention to a very important thing, which is income inequality. And it had a great slogan: We're the 99 percent. But it did not have a specific program, and it chose not to get involved in electoral politics, and therefore had no hand on the lever of power.

And the story illustrates a point about America, I think, and that is the country always needs the moral leader. Look back to the '60s, Dr. Martin Luther King, the man that had a dream, the moral leader, the driver of the popular movement. But it also needs a man or woman who understands the levers of power - that was LBJ - who could make the dream that the civil rights movement had, that King expressed, a permanent part of America by passing laws.

CONAN: We have some emails. Our guest is former Senator Bill Bradley. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. Luke in Caledonia, Michigan, writes: Ask Mr. Bradley if he's ever read Keyne's general theory: You can't get out of a recession in a consumer economy without wages rising, unemployment decreasing and people buying those consumer products.

With austerity and government cuts, you do the opposite, laying people off government jobs, depressing the labor market with more unemployed seeking existing jobs. If you read Keynes, he talks about the same kind of thinking that went on in the '30s, where wealth was hoarded in commodities rather than invested in production since no one had income to buy produced goods.

Doesn't anyone learn? Our politicians are usurping territory, where it should be the realm of economists. We only got out of the '30s depression when governments were forced to spend to support the war effort.

BRADLEY: Well, that's a very well-informed listener. I happen to agree with him. And I think that's the central question. I mean, you know, middle incomes have been stagnant. I mean, the median income in the United States in 2010 was the same as it was in 1996. There are 66 million Americans that live one paycheck away from economic catastrophe.

And the only way we get the economy moving again is to get more people working. Now, how do we do that? Well, on the books of non-financial corporations in America today is $1.8 trillion in cash and tradable instruments. So how do we get that deployed? If 20 percent of that hired people at the median income of $49,000, unemployment would drop to 5 percent.

When you ask a CEO: Why don't you take this cash and employ people? He says, first of all, because we don't have certainty. There's a lack of confidence. And second, we don't see demand, which is the caller's point. So you have to address those two. You address the confidence thing by long-term deficit reduction, not cutting now, but changing structures so that you can see, over time, the deficit trending down.

And you deal - and because if we get the deficit trending down, that then opens up an opportunity to stimulate demand with a massive, a massive infrastructure program of national significance, a trillion dollars creating five million jobs. That will generate the demand that will send the message to the CEO, employ more people to sell to those people who now have jobs and who can buy products.

And we finance that by getting the Chinese to be anchor investors in reconstruction bonds. They now loan us $1.4 trillion for our debt. We've reduced the debt. They still have the dollars. We get the investment. We put people back to work, and we create the momentum that will once again get growth started and incomes going up.

CONAN: That virtuous circle. Yeah.

BRADLEY: Right. That's exactly what it is. I should've said that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Somebody came up it first. It may have been Keynes, I think. Anyway, we're talking with former Senator Bill Bradley. His new book is "We Can All Do Better." He joins us here in Studio 3A. If you'd like to speak with him, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's 12 years now since former Senator Bill Bradley left politics, and he says he misses it - misses the policy aspects and meeting with constituents. He's not running for office now - at least not that we know of - but he's got a new book out, "We Can All Do Better." You can read more about what he sees as the keys to solving many of the country's pressing problems in an excerpt from the book. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you have questions for Bill Bradley: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Now, let's start with Ralph, and Ralph's with us from St. Cloud in Minnesota.

RALPH: Hi, I appreciate your answering my call. My question is: How do we get past the simplified narratives of all of the special interest groups from the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, the superPACs with lots of money to inform the public in a way that will have an effect at the polls so we can actually deal with our many problems, economic and foreign policy and social issues and all the rest?

BRADLEY: Well, in terms of information, there's probably more information available today than ever in history because of the Internet. It's a matter of finding it. If you want to know what I think would unlock our democracy, is we have to address the two structural problems of our democracy.

One is gerrymandering: drawing congressional district lines so that you end up with, out of 435 members of Congress, only 50 are in competitive districts, which means the rest of them are going to have assured victory in a general election, but they've got to worry about primaries from their left or right and therefore play to the extremes and never come to the middle to negotiate things that will help the American people.

And then a second problem is the role of money in politics, which is not new, but has taken on a proportion that is shocking right now, and the next several months, it's going to really be shocking to the American people.

You know, when I ran for the U.S. Senate for the first time in New Jersey in 1978, for my primary and general election, I spent $1.68 million. In the year 2000, the man who took that seat, Jon Corzine, spent $63 million. Now that - extrapolate that to the whole economy. I mean, in 1998, about $1.5 million was spent on lobbyists. In 2010, it was $3.5 million.

So a lot of numbers, but the numbers say one thing, and that is: Money plays a very big role in politics. And I ask you to consider that in 2009, 2010, the financial industry contributed $318 million to politicians in Washington. The health care industry contributed $145 million to politicians in Washington. And the energy industry contributed $75 million.

So is it any surprise that financial reform was watered down, or that there was no public option to private health insurance in the reform bill, health reform bill? Or that we didn't even get around to doing an energy bill at a time where we're sending billions of dollars abroad to autocrats to buy their oil?

I mean, money is the central core here, and what you'd find is even the lobbyists, then, could help provide information without tying it to money. I mean, if somebody comes into a congressman's office at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and gives an opinion on a defense issue, that person might know a lot. But he shouldn't be allowed, two hours later, to go to a fundraiser at some local bar and slip the congressman $10,000.

We've got to break that bond. Then we restore a dynamic process where people get information that's more valuable.

CONAN: In your book, you describe about some of the differences between why people are voting, as you put it, for Republicans so often is they're very good at the politics of conviction, and conviction, you say, wins out over intellectual argument every single time. How do you make campaign finance reform and congressional redistricting, how do you make that the politics of conviction?

BRADLEY: Well, passion is not generated by a subject. It's generated by the person who has it. And so it is quite easy to make it if you see how those two things are robbing us of becoming the kind of country that we otherwise could become. And let me just historically - how did you generate passion for a constitutional amendment that provided for direct election of senators?

I mean, in the 19th century - I mean, the founders said the senators representing the states will be selected by state legislatures. The House represents the people. It's selected by the people. Corrupt state legislatures were sending corrupt senators in the 19th century, the toadies of the railroads or the banks.

And what happened was the people rose up, and over a decade, built the force to create a constitutional amendment for direct election for president. And - for Senate. And I would say right now, that that's the same thing that has to happen. We need a constitutional amendment, because the Supreme Court has attributed: You can't limit money, because you limit speech. It's wrongheaded, in my view, but there it is.

You need a constitutional amendment that says federal, state and local governments may limit the amount of money in a campaign. And if you take the Occupy movement back and the Tea Party - the Tea Party has passions for civic programs. I would rather have a specific program, idea, getting money out of politics that attracts passion to it than have only passion. Ideally, you want both.

CONAN: John's on the line, John with us from Minneapolis.

JOHN: Yes, good afternoon. A pleasure to talk to you, senator. Say, do you think that we should be interventionist in our foreign policy, like involve ourselves, take care of every situation, you know, trying to fix every problem around the world? You know, maybe we could focus more on the problems here at home, (unintelligible) maybe entail some responsibility.

But maybe we shouldn't try to solve all the world's problems, but maybe just try to concentrate more here at home, that kind of thing, you know, instead of trying to solve every crisis around the world, you know, try to bind every wound, you know...

CONAN: John, I think we've got it.

BRADLEY: I agree with you 100 percent. I mean, all Americans think democracy is the best system of government. Americans are seriously divided as to whether we should fight wars abroad to promote democracy. I focused on the New York Times October 29th front page, two stories. One story said Europeans go to China to ask for investment in the euro bailout fund.

It was a story about the Chinese then saying, well, we'll do it if you change the following provisions under the World Trade Organization that will essentially make it more difficult for them to be sanctioned, right. This - it was about - really about Chinese economic power in the world.

The next story was Western business looks for investment in Libya. In other words, we are picking over the bones of our latest venture in the Middle East. During the last 12 years, while we've been following these wars in faraway places for dubious reasons, the Chinese have been laying the groundwork for economic growth and development in the 21st century.

They've been doing it from high-speed rail lines from China to Southeast Asia and across Central Asia. They've been doing it with dams that would allow them to have major influence on the Southeast Asia and South Asia by damming the rivers that feed those countries in their own country. And they've been doing it in countless other ways.

And we simply have to wake up. In the 21st century, it's not military that is the main issue. It is economic. And we need, as the caller said, investment in people in the United States. We need to tell them the truth about what we have to do to compete in a world economy that will become increasingly competitive, and we have to focus on that and not focus on a war in the far-distant place as a first resort.

Obviously, you know, you can have an operation that goes after terrorists in various parts of the world, but you don't want a war like in Iraq. You don't want the long commitment that's been made in Afghanistan. You need to have the ability to respond to crises and to preempt, and you need adaptability in military matters.

But the real issue will be the economy. Even national security depends upon the health of the economy. Look what happened to Russia. They fell apart because of their economy.

CONAN: Let's go next to Don, Don with us from Salt Lake City.

DON: Yeah. I had a question for the senator. It seems like we need a Pericles. I remember hearing in high school about how Pericles spoke to the Athenian population about what they needed to do, and they praised him for what he said, and then they didn't do what he said. And I'm just wondering: Why is it that lobbyists have so much influence over politicians?

Your experience with the seniors and their children was that they spoke a more true truth than the consultants. But why do the politicians always seem to believe the consultant over the American people?

CONAN: Pericles also started a war, but that's beside the point.

BRADLEY: Because it's difficult for someone who's in office to decide they're going to risk it all on following the belief they have. They want to get re-elected. The people who are in the culture of Washington - I call the members of the club, some of whom are consultants - perpetuate timidity in politicians. And by perpetuating timidity, we don't deal with the problems that we face as a country.

And so I think that it's time that you don't just listen to the politicians in Washington or depend on them. I mean, look at - you know, at some point in American history, there were four or five people who said slavery is immoral. They formed a group called the abolitionists. Sometime in American history, there was a group of a few people that said, look, women have to have the right to vote. They formed an organization called the suffragettes.

There were some - a few people in the United States who said African-Americans deserve to have the full promise the Constitution offered. It's called the civil rights movement. And then you had people who say we can't have clean - we need clean air and clean water, the environmental movement. It all started with one person and two people and five people.

And my metaphor is the Mississippi River, which I write about in the book, which I grew up next to. And that is the Mississippi River started with one drop, then five drops, then a branch, then a creek, then a river and a bigger river, and there it is, the Mississippi. The same way with democracy, it starts with one person. And we simply have to understand democracy is not a vicarious experience. And in the Internet age, apathy should not be an option.

Look at what happened in the Middle East by citizen activism. You mean to tell me there are not enough citizens in the United States that are bright enough to use the social network to create a movement that will do the things, some of which I just discussed, to create good jobs in this country at higher wages to deal with the deficit and to make sure the promise of America is available to everybody in this country?

CONAN: Let's go to Jerry(ph), Jerry with us from O'Fallon in Missouri.

JERRY: Hi, Senator Bradley. Long been a fan of yours.

BRADLEY: Hi, Jerry.

JERRY: Home state. I just - my question to you is how do you see this progress happening when we have an increasing number of voters who are looking for simple answers to complex problems? We have an increasing number of politicians that are finding their market niche by answering those voters and giving sometimes outrageously simple answers. You talk about high-speed rail. There are people with a straight face that will say, well, that's not in the Constitution. So with a mentality that seems to be taking over the electorate, how do you propose that - that seems to be the wave that we're working against.

CONAN: Or governors who send the high-speed rail money back to Washington.

BRADLEY: Right. Well, I think that you build on what I call the goodness of the American people. You build on the character foundation that looks to your neighbor and says, the welfare of your neighbor is as important as your own - if not as important, is important to you. In American history, when there - there have been times where points of view were irreconcilable, the period right before the Civil War occurs, to me.

I don't think we're at that point. Normally, it is political combat that is often vicious, but bloodless, that resolves our political questions. Among that - and they do it in one of three ways. One party either wipes out the other - there's a close margin of difference, therefore there's bipartisanship - or there's an emergence of a third party.

And I believe that your question calls attention to oversimplification. Well, who has actually tried to explain to the American people what the problem is? One of the reasons I wrote "We Can All Do Better" is that I wanted to explain to the American people exactly what we needed to do to do what they say they want to have done, but that, indeed, it's not a bumper sticker. It's not a slogan.

But most people in America are smart enough to get below the bumper sticker and slogan. Maybe that's the reason that Congress now has a 9 percent approval rating, which has increased 50 percent since last October.

CONAN: We're talking with Bill Bradley about his new book, as he just mentioned, "We Can All Do Better." It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's a tweet from Duncan(ph): I volunteered on your 2000 campaign. I've often reflected on how differently you would have led us. Will you run again? Which prompts the question, this reads a little like a campaign manifesto.

BRADLEY: No. It's really the contribution of a citizen. I mean, you know, how did this happen? The debt limit debacle, the wars that continue, the stagnant income for middle class. I don't have my hand on the levers of power. I'm a citizen, like everybody listening. And what could I do? I have some experience. Therefore, I write the book, and I talk about what we can do as citizens. And that's my role right now, to try to be a catalyst to this movement.

CONAN: Do you see any realistic prospects of a third party in this country?

BRADLEY: Yeah. It's a congressional third party, not a presidential. It's not Perot or Nader because those get tied up in two bigger set of issues as president. But with only 50 districts competitive in America, you could field a third party that had a very specific objective, very clear deficit reduction, very clear infrastructure program, very clear tax program, very clear way to get money out of politics.

If that group, that party won 20, 25 seats, it goes to Congress. It's at the fulcrum of power. And it trades. Every vote that either party wants, they trade. Will you support a constitutional amendment? Will you support the massive infrastructure? Will you support this deficit reduction package that has taxes and Social Security and Medicare, defense and does the job in the long term?

So I think that it's - there are a lot of people out there who are dissatisfied, a lot of people who still retain their idealism, a lot of people that believe that they have power themselves as citizens. And I believe that you will see that emerge if we continue to have the stalemate that exists today, which I obviously think is caused mostly by the Tea Party. But that's my own personal view.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left, but I did want to ask you, yesterday, the president came out and said he thinks same-sex marriage ought to be legal. What do you think has changed as a result?

BRADLEY: Well, he's changed his opinion. I think that it's - I think the important thing in these matters is to say what you believe. Anybody that starts trimming, you end up hurting yourself. So he clearly believed that or he wouldn't have said it. And I didn't see him, so I didn't read his body language. But I assume that he does, and therefore, he's in a better place now than he was four days ago.

CONAN: Senator Bradley, thank you very much for your time today.

BRADLEY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up: Now that President Obama has declared his support, for same-sex marriage, call and tell us what you think has changed: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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