Al Gore takes on challenger online

The vice president takes his aggressive attacks on Bill Bradley into cyberspace.

Published December 8, 1999 6:40PM (EST)

Vice President Al Gore took his aggressive attacks against challenger Bill Bradley's health-care proposal into a new realm Wednesday morning: cyberspace.

Shortly after 9 a.m. EST, Gore popped into a cyber cafe in the Dupont Circle area of Northwest Washington, a neighborhood usually known for an altogether different kind of flaming. There the vice president drank a cup of coffee and sent out what the Bradley campaign will no doubt regard as spam.

Wearing his now trademark shiny black cowboy boots, Gore sent a friendly reminder to Bradley about what he deemed an "oversight" in the Bradley campaign's health-care proposal. But the electronic communiqui was hardly a heartfelt policy exchange among Democrats about health-care policy. It was the latest in a series of media-propelled shots Gore has taken at the surprisingly strong Democratic challenger.

After eons of not even mentioning Bradley by name, Gore started coming at him a few months ago, challenging the former New York Knick's health-care proposal as a budget-buster that would imperil Medicare. Wednesday's flame marked nothing new in substance, but indicated that there is no media venue into which Gore will not tread to muck up the one man standing between him and the Democratic nomination.

"Dear Bill," Gore wrote in an e-mail addressed to and sent from "I've read with interest your campaign's recent comments about Medicare and our respective health care proposals, and I've noticed what appears to be an oversight. And as a result, I'm sending this e-mail to ask you for a clarification ... to clear up this question about your proposal."

Gore said he'd reviewed Bradley's Web site and public comments, and asked if Bradley had any plans to "reserve any of the [budget] surplus to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund." As "experts" have said that the Medicare trust fund will need greater funding, which Gore has proposed doing, Gore asked, "What specific measures do you propose to compensate for not dedicating any of the surplus to strengthen the Medicare trust fund?"

"As you know," Gore wrote, "we face a critical challenge with the retirement of the baby boomers and a doubling of the size of the Medicare program over the next 30 years."

Gore then spoke into a digital camera delivering a similar question to Bradley in a recorded message sent to Bradley via e-mail as well.

Eric Hauser, spokesman for the Bradley campaign, said he had yet to see the e-mail, and would not comment until he had reviewed its contents.

"I've challenged [Bradley] to debate these issues, I want a debate every week on a different topic," Gore explained to reporters after his e-mail stunt. "But he hasn't been willing to accept that, so this is kind of an e-debate."

Gore said that further e-debates "would tend to illuminate the policy differences and would tend to sharpen both campaigns. I mean, campaigns can get away with murder if they just deal with vague generalities."

The general geniality that has characterized the scramble for the Republican nomination in the past few weeks stands as a stark contrast with the meowing and hissing coming from the sack in which Bradley and Gore are scrapping. The campaign strategy for this is quite simple: The Gore team knows that its man has 50 arrows in his image while Bradley began his campaign posturing himself as an above-the-fray apolitical guru-type. By throwing issue-related mud at Bradley, Gore staffers hope to bring Bradley's public persona into greater dirt-equity with that of their sullied boss.

Shortly before the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa in early October -- which marked the two candidates' first joint appearance outside Washington -- Gore began hammering Bradley for not being a good Democrat. Specifically, Gore criticized Bradley for voting for Ronald Reagan's spending cuts in 1981, for flirting with support for school voucher programs and for quitting the Senate in 1996 instead of championing the Democratic cause in the Republican-controlled body.

But after Bradley announced his ambitious health-care proposal at the end of September, Gore was like a puppy with a new chew toy. He spat on in, he tossed it around, he hid it under the sofa. He made assumptions, he cast aspersions, he dragged it in stink and hung it around Bradley's neck.

"Sen. Bradley's plan ... imperils Medicare, wipes out Medicaid, spends billions on those who already have health insurance, only covers 1 percent more than my plan -- far from his stated goal of 95 percent -- and does so while using up our entire surplus," Gore charged. "In short, he offers a flawed trillion-dollar plan that will cost the American people even more in the long run."

The Bradley campaign, bearing in mind the old axiom about never wrestling with a pig -- you just get dirty and the pig loves it -- tried to remain above the fray. During the Oct. 28 debate at Dartmouth College, when Gore cited an "expert's" claim that the Bradley health-care plan would cost much more than the $650 billion Bradley had assigned, Bradley politely said, "We each have our own experts. I dispute the cost figure that Al has used."

When the criticism seemed to be gaining traction, however, the Bradley people sent out a press release noting that "Gore is attacking Bradley's plan simply because it is comprehensive and bold." Further, the Bradley press release stated, Gore is able to attack Bradley's plan without fear of retaliation precisely because "Gore has made promises about his plans for America ... [without telling] the American people what these promises will cost."

In mid-November, Gore began accusing the Bradley health-care plan of potentially robbing funding for Medicaid, thus disproportionately hurting African-Americans, AIDS patients and the disabled.

Bradley finally entered the fight, responding that Gore was using "scare tactics and divisiveness."

"This inaccurate attack is precisely the kind of thing that makes it impossible to get anything done in Washington," Bradley said in Los Angeles on Nov. 13. "Scare tactics and divisiveness poison the atmosphere, alienate the public and create the kind of political paralysis that has left 44 million Americans without health insurance and millions more struggling to pay for it." Bradley also sent an e-mail to people on his list criticizing the vice president.

Previously unwilling to play at the vice president's level, Bradley soon began going on the offensive, attacking the veep for being part of a "tacit, secret handshake signal(ing) an agreement among politicians not to upset a [campaign-finance] system that they use to their advantage."

Reminding voters of the Clinton-Gore campaign's 1996 fund-raising shenanigans -- a subject he refused to touch at Dartmouth, when he said he wasn't "going to get into the details" of the scandal -- Bradley said that "there are reports that Clinton administration cabinet officers are being asked to arrange their travel schedules and public announcements so the vice president can finance his political campaign with taxpayer dollars when his funds run out."

But Gore got Bradley back on the ropes after Bradley refused to rule out a tax increase in an interview with the editorial board of the Washington Post.

"Yesterday, the vice president said I was talking about tax increases," Bradley responded on Monday. "Let me be quite clear. I am not proposing a tax increase. I specifically said I was not proposing a tax increase and the vice president knows it. Nobody can predict the future of a trillion-dollar economy. That's why the vice president also has not ruled out the possible need for a tax increase. He and I have the same position on future taxes.

"In falsely asserting I want to raise taxes, Al Gore is once again turning an honest discussion about a future no one can predict into a proposal I've never made," Bradley said. "Al Gore needs to respect voters enough to be honest not just about his plans, but mine. Honesty and trust is what they would like to have in a candidate and what they expect and deserve to have in a president."

But after Gore flamed Bradley Wednesday, he again took Bradley to task for his refusal to rule out any tax increase.

"You know there's a big difference between looking at the future of fiscal policy and imagining all kinds of different circumstances that can come up and saying that, 'Well, you have to have flexibility on the fiscal side' -- that's one thing," Gore said. "But it's quite another thing to propose a possible tax increase for no other reason that to try to cover your bases when you have this big gaping hole in a campaign proposal that you can't fill any other way."

But when pressed further as to whether or not he would ever propose a tax increase, Gore demurred. "Under current economic circumstances, I have no intention of proposing any tax increase," Gore said. But "nobody has a crystal ball."

The cat fight will come into public view on Dec. 17 when the two candidates are scheduled to square off in a New Hampshire debate.

By Jake Tapper

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

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