Going for the gold star

Bradley tries hard to be bold and impressive, while Gore concentrates on winning.

Published January 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The Democratic primary campaign reached a turning point of sorts in the Jan. 8 debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. When it came Gore's turn to pose a question to Bradley, the vice president instead turned to the audience and asked a farmer named Chris Peterson to stand up. Along with the thousands of others in the region, Gore went on to explain in his faux-folksy manner, three-quarters of Peterson's farm had been flooded out in 1993. When the moderator finally prodded Gore to ask a question, Gore turned to Bradley and said: "Why did you vote against the disaster relief [bill] for Chris Peterson, when he and thousands of other farmers here in Iowa needed it after those '93 floods?"

If the Iowa debate had been a Roadrunner cartoon, Bradley would have been the coyote, and this would have been the moment an anvil dropped right on his head. Knocked on his heels, all Bradley could do was mouth a lame bromide about wanting to talk about the future and not the past.

Was this just another example of Bradley getting upended by Gore's slash-and-burn tactics? Not exactly. If you're campaigning in the Iowa primary, a 1993 vote against disaster relief for Iowa farmers is hardly an obscure point. Right or wrong, why wasn't Bradley prepared? Modern campaigns not only do "opposition research" on their opponents; the really serious ones do it on themselves too, precisely to avoid this sort of embarrassing situation. The real story out of the Iowa debate was just how unprepared Bradley was for what should have been a fairly predictable line of attack.

What makes this more than just a momentary lapse is that this was only the most conspicuous example of weakness in the Bradley campaign. Political campaigning involves an ever-changing succession of thrusts and parries over contrasting records, contending agendas and differing ways of framing debates. Doing an effective job involves having a sense not only of how a particular attack or pledge will play, but how your opponent might respond and where an exchange might lead three or four stages down the road.

That is the sort of insight a candidate gets from a veteran message-man like Bob Shrum, the marquee campaign strategist signed on to Gore's campaign. This may not be the most attractive part of the political game, but it's vitally important in determining who wins and who loses. And it's an area in which Bradley's operation has continually been found wanting.

Consider a few examples. In the New Hampshire debate, a few days before the one in Iowa, Bradley accused Gore of "being in a Washington bunker" because of the Clinton administration's history of contentious relations with the Republican Congress. Gore's strategists must have been stunned by their good fortune, since this gave Gore yet another opportunity to drive home his "stay and fight" message against Bradley's reputation as an aloof quitter. Political journalists are partial to basketball metaphors when discussing Bill Bradley; but in baseball terms this was the equivalent of a hanging fastball right over home plate.

Even when Gore's gambits have looked painfully lame, like his challenge to scrap all 30-second television ads, they've actually been deceptively effective, in this case blunting Bradley's reputation as a reformer. In the last three weeks, Gore has managed to maneuver Bradley into an even more awkward position, forcing him, in essence, to mount his campaign on the basis of just how unsuccessful the Clinton administration has been on a number of different fronts. You may or may not agree with that judgment. But it's not the message you want to bring to Democratic primary voters.

Why has Bradley had so many recent stumbles? Part of the problem stems from his shortcomings as a campaigner. Back in 1990, though he was heavily favored to win a third term in the Senate, Bradley very nearly lost his race for reelection to a then-political unknown named Christine Todd Whitman.

Yet the deepest difficulties seem to derive from the insularity of his campaign. Last fall, when Bradley was in the first throes of media adulation, I twice tried to find a reporter to write an article on the policy and strategy advisors who were working with Bradley's campaign. The ideological coloration of a candidate's policy advisors can tell you as much about the kind of president he would be as the things he says on the stump.

But the article never got written. Both the reporters to whom I'd given the assignment told me how tight-lipped the Bradley operation was; and what the second of the two came up with was that Bradley didn't really appear to have that many outside advisors. Since I didn't have much personal experience with either writer, I first thought they might not be pushing hard enough. But the problem wasn't with them. The problem was me: I had sent them down a blind alley.

As other news outlets have subsequently reported, Bradley's campaign operation is made up mostly of the candidate's former Senate staffers and a handful of New Jersey politicos, a number of whom have been involved in disastrously run political races in the Garden State. It's not that Bradley doesn't consult with, or seek advice from, people outside of his own inner circle. He's discussed his policy proposals with various prominent policy analysts. (The names of former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich and former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer are often mentioned.) But the extent of his outreach to outside groups and individuals seems qualitatively different from that of most similar campaigns.

Even the exceptions seem to prove the rule. Bradley gained a good deal of credibility within the Democratic Party's liberal wing, for instance, when liberal Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone conspicuously endorsed him early last fall. And Wellstone did hand off to Bradley a good bit of the campaign apparatus he had been assembling for his own, eventually aborted, presidential run. But even in this case, Wellstone's people went into the campaign's field organization and remained outside Bradley's inner circle, where strategy and policy are formulated.

So why should it be such a bad thing that Bradley keeps his own counsel and relies on trusted associates? It shouldn't have to be. In part, that's what made Bradley so popular. Unlike Gore's campaign, Bradley's wasn't honeycombed with high-priced consultants. But crafting a policy agenda requires a good ear for the political dynamics of the campaign as well. Casting a wider net for outside input, and then taking some of that advice, might have helped Bradley come up with better policy proposals. But a lack of experienced hands has shown itself in repeated mistakes, not just in the fluffy realm of campaign strategy but even in the nuts and bolts of Bradley's big ideas.

Take the Bradley health-care plan. When he first released it, party liberals lauded his effort to put the issue of universal health care back on the national agenda. What got less attention is that many of those same politicos and activists found the plan a real disappointment. Among other problems, it was woefully underfunded and actually endangered the care now provided for some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Since late last year it has become a commonplace for pundits to charge that Gore's repeated attacks on Bradley's plan are distorted and demagogic, even if they have been politically effective. But that gives Bradley's plan a lot more credit than it deserves. What Gore has charged is that Bradley's plan would abolish Medicaid without providing sufficient funds for current Medicaid recipients to purchase new coverage.

Sure, there are some details to be quibbled over. But the charge has such political potency because it is true, and undeniably so. In debate after debate, Gore has used this issue against Bradley, pummeling him like a political equivalent of the young Mike Tyson; short on grace, mechanical in style, but with a devastating, almost killing, power.

So why would Bradley want to leave Medicaid recipients in the lurch? If you asked people in his campaign they'd likely say (and, privately, many of his prominent supporters do say) that if the proposed subsidies proved insufficient they'd just raise the subsidy. Sounds fair enough, right?

But of course that means that the whole program would cost a hell of a lot more than the current price tag. Bradley has responded that his plan is bolder, and tries to accomplish more (which is true). But he's never really addressed Gore's charge. By repeatedly defending his plan on the basis of its scope and boldness, in spite of the stubborn facts contained in Gore's criticisms, Bradley seems to believe he deserves an A for effort.

That flaw has allowed Gore to bloody Bradley up, thwart his momentum in polls, and consolidate his own support among Democratic primary voters. But Bradley's own missteps and the Gore campaign's ability to out-think the former senator has allowed Gore to accomplish what was perhaps an even more important goal.

For all the talk about Gore's faltering campaign last fall, the vice president was always much stronger than the press let on. Beating Gore at the polls was always an extremely difficult task for Bradley. Gore faced the danger that the party establishment might come to believe that Bradley was a better campaigner, or that he simply had a better shot at winning. That, in conjunction with a lukewarm showing in the polls, could have meant Gore's undoing.

Bradley's health-care plan may be bold. But there is no A for effort in presidential politics. Republicans would never grant Bradley the sort of special pleading he now seems to ask of Gore and Democratic primary voters. So while Gore has been making his play for votes at the polls, he has also been delivering another message to the waverers in his party: that as a presidential candidate, Bradley is just not ready for prime time.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Al Gore Democratic Party Healthcare Reform