For eighteen years, I was a U.S. senator. Then for three years, I ran for president. For the past twelve years, the equivalent of two Senate terms, I’ve worked in finance, including venture capital, investment banking, and money management. People ask me what I miss about being in politics. The answer is twofold: I miss concerning myself with public policy seven days a week and interacting with constituents. For me, American democracy is, as Woodrow Wilson put it, a “sacred mystery.”
I was always moved by the special relationship between a legislator and his constituents. In my Senate days, I would travel around New Jersey, my adopted state, trying to capture in my mind and heart the essence of the New Jerseyness I sought to represent. I believed
I had been elected to use my judgment, not to be a weather-vane swiveling in whatever direction the popular wind pointed. But that still meant I had an obligation to listen to my constituents before I voted.
Next to a large canvas sign reading “Meet Senator Bradley,” I would stand in the concourse of the Port Authority bus terminal, where ten thousand New Jersey commuters rushed past in an hour, my hand outstretched, my aides ready with pen and paper in case someone’s question required more information than I could convey in a fleeting moment. I would walk the beaches of the Jersey Shore, each summer covering the hundred and twenty-seven miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook, in what I called a walking town meeting; moving along the high-water line, I would answer questions, shake hands, catch Frisbees, pose for photos, and generally enjoy myself. At local Democratic Party events—dances, dinners, cocktail parties—I would heed the advice an old pro once gave me, “Billy, you got to kiss the women,” only to come home at night drenched in the aromas of a hundred different perfumes.
New Jerseyans, like most people, cared about the big issues: jobs, health care, education, the environment, pensions, along with issues of foreign policy that bore on our national security. They were interested, too, in purely local issues: airport noise, commuter trains, road construction, and beach replenishment. I would stand before three hundred people in a town hall, taking their questions and gauging their moods—and I would ask myself, “What made these three hundred people come out on this freezing winter (or rainy spring) night to ask me questions?” Sometimes the answer was simple curiosity, but usually they wanted to find out whether they agreed with my views on the economy, foreign policy, or a hundred other issues. Sometimes they just wanted to have their say. I found the job of being their senator a big, exhausting, and wonderful responsibility.
I was frequently rejuvenated by these interactions with constituents. Occasionally I was their piñata, but most often they shared their concerns and hopes with me. They told me how they were coping and what they thought government should do and not do. They asked me to help them with a mistake made by the federal bureaucracy—a lost Social Security check, an immigration problem. Their very presence at a town meeting or issue forum, their visits to my offices in New Jersey or Washington, DC, was testimony to their faith in our system of governance. They saw that the system was theirs.
The mystery for me was the connection I felt to them. I had always been curious about other people and enriched by their stories. But there had to be more to it than that. No one in my family had ever held elective office. My father, the local banker, was treasurer of the school board in our hometown of Crystal City, Missouri, for over twenty years, and my mother was a fourth-grade teacher and later a volunteer in church and civic groups. Both parents drilled into me, by word and example, the value of altruism, of giving a part of yourself to another human being. In a family like mine, idealism came naturally, but politics was another matter. My father wanted me to be a gentleman, my mother wanted me to be a success, but neither wanted me to be a politician.
But there was something moving and powerful to me even then about a group of citizens interacting in the knowledge that their collective opinion could have an impact. Democracy, I came to realize, worked only if people assumed their responsibility as citizens. If they didn’t act, the monied interests controlled the process. If they took the initiative, our history showed that they could change the country’s direction.
Whenever I go back to that small town that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi, I go down to the river and stand for a while, watching it flow. It scours half a continent on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, and I imagine it all starting with one drop of water that with other drops forms a trickle that becomes a branch that flows into a creek that feeds into a river that flows into another, larger river, and another, and another, until there it is before me—the mighty Mississippi. In those moments, the river is, for me, a metaphor for our democracy. Both start with a single, small, seemingly insignificant thing—one drop of water and one citizen—that comes together with others and still others until you have a powerful current that sweeps away anything in its path. That river best expresses the mystery of democracy for me. “Out of many—one,” it says on the dollar bill. That’s true of a river and a democracy.
I look at our world as it is today and wonder how our American story will evolve. There are so many uncertainties, so much division, so much pain, yet I also see unlimited potential. The question is, Can we make the decisions now that will secure us a better tomorrow?
Sometimes in a democracy there is a standoff between two irreconcilable points of view. This was the case in the years leading up to the Civil War. Short of resorting to violence, you resolve such conflicts with political combat that, though vicious, is bloodless—until one side wins. Even given our current political paralysis, I don’t believe that America is fundamentally different today than from years past. But our specific circumstances are indeed different, and our margin for error is much less. Will one party crush the other, or will we get together across party lines? Or will the emergence of a new party be the catalyst that allows us to act decisively before our economic crisis reaches the tipping point, destroying our common welfare and diminishing our power in the world?
We are confronted with many pressing social issues, but the issues critical to our nation’s future relate to our economy, our foreign policy, and our political system. What follows is my attempt as a citizen to grapple with those challenges. By focusing on them, I necessarily leave out other important areas—pensions, health care, and the environment among them. Our economic challenges are complex, so when I write about the economy there will be a lot of numbers. I don’t want to oversimplify. People must understand the totality of what we face so that they can make their choice about what kind of country we will become. I hope to lay out what we must do in the short, medium, and long term to raise the standard of living for all our citizens. I intend to suggest an approach to foreign policy that, while it might seem new, is really as old as the country. Neither of these programs is likely to be achieved without changing our politics, with its corrosive influence of money and ideology. All of this is offered from the perspective of one whose active political life is over but whose love of country will never die.
These pages were largely inspired by a passage in Lincoln’s second State of the Union address, in which he said, “We can succeed only by concert. It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’” That is a question for us as a nation and for each of us individually. Can we all do better? The relevance of Lincoln’s question to the fragility and inequality of our economy, the direction of our foreign policy, and the paralysis that afflicts our national dialogue is indisputable. The challenges we face require all of us to be at our best. Yet our fate as individuals, even at our best, is tied to the success of our national community. No one of us is an island, even in a country as big as America. Larger forces—a flood, a hurricane, a financial crash—can overwhelm us as individuals, but together we can prevail. We learned that early, as Americans: The pioneers were courageous individuals who acted in concert to raise their neighbors’ barns and bring in the harvest. Only by banding together did we secure our independence, settle a continent, win our wars. The challenges before us in our nation’s third century are no less stark.
“Can we all do better?”