Gore gets tough in non-debate

The vice president raps an insurgent Bradley -- and Clinton -- at a New Hampshire town meeting.

Topics: 2000 Elections, Bill Clinton, Democratic Party, Al Gore,

First-time visitors to Campaign 2000 who tuned in to Wednesday night’s town meeting with Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen.
Bill Bradley learned the basic chemical breakdown
the rest of us already know pretty well: Bradley = wood, Gore = plastic.

Beyond the superficiality of Bradley’s philosopher-on-a-mountaintop
somnambulism and Gore’s more than occasionally cloying exuberance,
however, witnesses to the WMUR-TV/CNN 60-minute exchange saw two
widely divergent politicians and campaigns.

To Gore’s chagrin, the format of the town meeting seemed to be designed to avoid pitting
one candidate against the other. Members of the audience, chosen by
lottery from the Upper Valley region, asked one question to one
candidate, and that candidate was given 90 seconds to respond. There
were no follow-ups, introductory or closing remarks, and no direct
confrontations.

Nonetheless, Gore continued to step up his attacks on Bradley — who matches
him in cash-on-hand, and leads the vice president in the state,
47-39 percent, according to a Quinnipiac College poll
released Tuesday. Gore hammered home his differences with the
stunningly strong insurgent on school vouchers, health care and U.S.
intervention abroad. Bradley, meanwhile, continued to brush off
Gore’s charges like so much dandruff.

The last time Bill Bradley came up to Dartmouth College for a major
competition, he only had a so-so night. On Feb. 19, 1965, the
Princeton Tigers handed the Dartmouth Indians their shorts, 83-57,
but Bradley — for whom expectations were and will always be
superhumanly high — only managed to score 19 points. (In his previous
trip to Dartmouth, on Feb. 8, 1964, he scored 31 points and
was the only Tiger to hit double figures.)

Wednesday night’s was another decent if unspectacular performance. One of the few
solid, substantive punches that landed occurred when
Gore pointed out that Emory University Medical School just assessed
that Bradley’s health-care proposal would cost $1.2 trillion over a
decade — as opposed to the $650 billion price tag Bradley had
assigned it.

“That’s more than entire budget surplus,” Gore said. “We need to save
some of the surplus to save Medicaid. The cost is way excessive.” The
next time Gore was asked a question — on violence in schools — he took a
few seconds to continue bleeding Bradley’s plan. “The numbers have to
add up,” he said, noting that “one of the reasons why we have a
strong economy” is because of diligent planning. Bradley’s proposal, he
said, is “something that oughta be looked at very carefully.”

To that, Bradley just said: “We each have our own experts. I dispute
the cost figure that Al has used.” And when handed a question about the
still-oozing campaign-finance scandals of the Clinton-Gore
’96 campaign, he refrained from attacking, noting that there were “irregularities that have been
addressed,” though he wasn’t “going to get into the details.”

Gore wasn’t so easy on President Clinton. Questioned about the climate of cynicism created not only by the behavior of the
GOP-led Congress, but also “the behavior of some members of your
administration,” Gore leaped forward
and said, “I understand the disappointment and anger you feel about
President Clinton; I felt it myself.”
But Clinton’s name hadn’t been mentioned, and the
questioner could have been referring to any number of tarnished,
indicted or imprisoned members of the administration the president pledged
would be the most ethical in history.

Adding that Clinton is his “friend,” and that he feels “it’s time to
move on,” Gore also suggested that he was a vociferous Clinton
defender during Zippergate because he “took an oath to serve this
country through thick and thin.”

The evening was a 60-minute version of the last few months, summed up
for the viewers at home who’d missed the previous 10 episodes. Both
men showed their considerable strengths and weaknesses.

At his best moments, Bradley connected with people in the authentic manner of a popular professor. To a question about the environment, he seemed to float off into a place where he was on the beach, or in a wood, turning into Henry David Thoreau. At other times he became Little Nemo in Slumberland, barely registering as present in
the room, much less alive and staking a claim that he should be
leader of the free world.

Gore, for his part, tried more direct attempts to “connect,” asking
questioners about their families and their jobs, joking and smiling and
then suddenly turning deadly serious to address the important
question at hand. When asked what the biggest mistake of his
political career was, he warmly joked, “Gosh, there have been so many of
them.” Then he suggested that his biggest gaffe was his poor “choice
of words” when saying that he created the Internet, rather than the
actuality that he had “taken the lead in Congress in creating the
Internet.” This was a glimpse at the Al Gore you read about, the one
reporters and supporters see on occasion behind closed doors.

Too often, however, viewers saw the revved-up new version of Al
Gore, the one who probably means it but too often, to too many
voters, seems insincere. After the debate, but before hosts Bernie Shaw and WMUR’s
Karen Brown said goodnight, he told the audience he would stay behind
and answer any of their questions “after the cameras have gone.” It seemed like shtick, and reporters reacted like it was. But in fact Gore — and voters — stayed a full 95 minutes after the debate ended.

And in the press room, reporters were continually bombarded with e-mails and
“Reality Check” sheets taking Bradley to task for comments he had made
just minutes before, poking holes in Bradley’s record on campaign-finance reform, Medicare, health care, school vouchers, ad infinitum. Ever the eager-beaver student body president, Gore is the man who
wants it too much, vying against the man who may not want it enough.

Both men also took the opportunity to fill in their
unfinished portraits. Bradley said he wanted to attack the deficits
in urban education the same way FDR attacked the Depression, devoting
not only “resources and ingenuity” but a “spirit [that] needs to be
behind this, a willingness to experiment.” The latter seemed a reference to his past vote in support of a limited public school
voucher program, which Gore has hammered him on continually, knowing
how it bothers liberal Democrats and teachers.

Gore repeated what has become a new chapter in his personal
narrative, sharing his disillusionment with politics when he returned
from Vietnam, after his father had been defeated in his senatorial
reelection run largely because of his support for civil rights and
his opposition to the war. “I thought politics was the absolute last
thing I’d ever do with my life,” Gore said, noting that he had spent
seven years as a reporter and only changed professions once he saw
what local Tennessee politicians were able to do for people on a
local level.

Who won? “I thought Bradley really took the debate,” said Dartmouth government
professor Richard Winters. “All he had to do was position himself as
an equal in the posturing on the stage and he did more than that.
This is a guy who’s fluent, who’s at ease with himself, who’s
confident in what he had to say. Not at all to criticize what Gore
did. I thought Gore did well, but there’s a kind of odd shallowness
and a lack of gravitas associated with Gore that’s really sort of
puzzling and I don’t understand it.”

The press room was packed afterwards with campaign drones from both
sides — as well as three Cabinet secretaries flown up at Gore
campaign, not taxpayer, expense — to spin for their men.

Gore press secretary Chris Lehane said that his boss “raised some
serious questions about Sen. Bradley’s health-care plan. Al Gore
cited an independent study coming out of Emory University which said
simply that Bradley’s numbers don’t add up. I thought it was pretty
interesting that Sen. Bradley did not defend his plan with the
degree of vigor that one would expect when a major plank of his
campaign was challenged.”

“Res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself,” countered Bradley
speechwriter Richard Stengel. “He spoke for himself. We don’t need a
thousand people in here to spin afterwards, that’s why you have to
resort to lame people like me to have to do this, or Cabinet
officers, right? His manner and his presentation is in keeping with
what we think is the spirit of the times in America: low-key, not
badgering somebody, giving your positive vision, confident,
optimistic, unscripted.”

As for Gore’s slam that Bradley’s health-care plan is a
budget-buster, Stengel said, “Hey, look, we think [Gore's] education
plan is going to bust the budget too, but that’s not what we’re here
to talk about, we’re hear to talk about our proposals.”

“Let’s stop the spin for a minute,” said New Hampshire State House
Minority Leader Peter Burling, a Gore supporter. “The fact of the
matter is, these two guys approach the issue in different ways.
Bradley approaches as a poet. A philosopher. A theorist. Gore
approaches it as a practical politician: ‘How am I going to get the
money to make that happen?’ What we saw here was a contrast between
the artist and the pragmatist.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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