Bill Bradley.jpeg

Update below:
I attended George Shultz’s 95th birthday party at the Hoover Institution last night. George is nothing if not ecumenical, which is one of his best qualities. So George was the one who invited former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley to give the main before-dinner speech. On domestic policy, I didn’t agree with almost anything Bradley said. On foreign policy, I was glad he said a lot of what he did and I think that particular audience needed to hear it: he said that Bill Clinton made a huge mistake in expanding NATO to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary after “we” won the Cold War.

One of the things that I particularly disagreed with was Bradley’s view on campaign finance reform. He went after the Buckey v. Valeo decision in the 1970s and the more-recent Citizens United decision, and argued that “money isn’t speech.” He then called for government financing of campaigns.

I decided that if there were Q&A afterwards (there usually isn’t at such events), I would ask him about government financing. I thought to take on the “money isn’t speech” issue by asking “is paper speech?” Can the New York Times put out a print edition without paper? But I decided instead, given the audience and their likely veneration of many of the Founding Fathers, to quote the famous Thomas Jefferson line about such measures. I found it on my iPhone and, sure enough, Bradley said that either Stanford president John Hennessey or George (I’ve forgotten which) had asked him to take a question or two. So I stood up and stuck my hand way in the air.

Bradley called on me and I fumbled for the Jefferson quote on my iPhone, gave up, and did it by memory. Here’s what I said, although I’m plugging in the actual Jefferson line because he said it better:

Senator, first I agree with you strongly that it was a very big blunder to expand NATO. Second, you advocated government funding of elections, which means that taxpayers would be forced to pay for elections. Here’s what Thomas Jefferson said about such measures: “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” So, Senator, why do you disagree with Thomas Jefferson?

He didn’t answer my question but he did give a half-decent answer. He argued that $2 billion in government for elections was small potatoes compared to the $1 trillion in special tax breaks that politicians would be more likely to get rid of if campaigns were government-funded. I think he’s wrong empirically, but it was not a bad shot. Incidentally, John Hennessey, who was still on stage, nodded his head vigorously when Bradley answered.

In finding the Jefferson quote, I see that there’s more controversy about it than I had thought, with many people claiming, somewhat plausibly, that Jefferson had in mind only government funding of religious views. But I wonder if he wouldn’t have thought the same of using government funds to finance some close-to-religious views that many politicians espouse.

Knowing that Bradley was an NBA star and probably still an NBA fan, I went over to his table afterward, introduced myself, and asked if we could do a selfie. He grinned, said sure, and pulled my cap down over my forehead. Thus the picture above.

Update: My Hoover colleague John Cochrane emailed me the following comment last night:

Thanks for standing up. I think you missed the better chance: Senator, what do you say to the most common argument, that limiting campaign contributions makes it much easier for incumbents. And by the way, if money is so important why is Jeb Bush at the back of the polls?

I agree with John that this is a better question. Moreover, as I pointed out to him this morning, it’s even more devastating a rebuttal of Bradley than it appears. Why? Because Bradley’s argument is about how big money is given by various people to keep tax loopholes. And Jeb Bush raised big money while putting forward a plan to reduce tax loopholes. See the problem?