Bill Bradley plays offense, reluctantly

The underdog faces a dilemma: The new politics is about goodness. The old politics works.

Published January 30, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

After a week of mixed campaign messages, former Sen. Bill Bradley came out swinging Sunday, slamming Vice President Al Gore on his role in the Clinton administration's 1996 campaign fund-raising scandals. The new offensive caps a week of hedging and internal argument within the Bradley campaign over how aggressively to target the vice president.

Speaking at a campaign-finance reform rally here Sunday morning, Bradley cited an article in Forbes magazine on Gore's 1996 fund-raising trip to a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, which the magazine calls "the very symbol of campaign-finance chicanery."

"Quite frankly I think that more explanation is needed ... about his participation. And I believe that unless that explanation is forthcoming that the public will reject a candidacy in the fall that fails to come to terms with this circumstance in our Democratic Party in 1996. It's as simple as that."

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane was quick to pounce on the Bradley announcement. "Sen. Bradley has made his own personal journey of the last couple days. He began saying he wasn't going to run negative ads, saying he was a different kind of politician. Now he's ending his campaign as the [typical] politician, one who can't defend his issues on the merits and resorts to negative personal attacks. It's the politics of desperation."

"He's listening to his consultants, his handlers, his pollsters. He's made a raw, crass political calculation that his agenda wasn't working, that the music of his message wasn't playing," Lehane said.

But Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser defended the new aggressive stance. "Al Gore brought this on himself with five months of often purposeful distortion of his record, our record and reality," said Hauser, who disagreed with the charge that Bradley had gone negative. "We wanted to stay positive. We're still being positive. The only thing we're doing is pointing out facts."

Hauser said the campaign was not necessarily implying that the vice president was involved in shady fund-raising practices as much as Bradley was focusing on the lack of lessons learned by the vice president. "If there's a commitment to it, one would think it would show up in the biggest political speech of his life, his announcement speech, where it didn't even show up."

If nothing else, Bradley's tactics today have kept Gore on defense today in New Hampshire. "There is no question that in 1996, the RNC and DNC both had issues with the fund-raising," said Gore spokesman Lehane.

Bradley's new offensive Sunday shows that the hard-liners in his campaign have won his ear, getting him to finally shelve his noticeable reluctance to hammer Gore on the campaign fund-raising scandals that mired the administration in 1996.

For weeks, Bradley's top advisors, among them Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, have advocated a more aggressive approach, while Bradley has resisted. The internal conflict is difficult to miss. Throughout this last week, Bradley advisors have privately pulled aside certain reporters to "give them a heads-up" on an impending, full-fledged attack about Gore's fund-raising calls from his White House office and his visit to a Buddhist Temple to raise money for the 1996 campaign.

But until today, Bradley had stopped short of a frontal attack linking Gore to those scandals. "Is it going to be today?" Bradley's press corps asks daily, always up for some old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat. Time and again, Bradley came to the brink. At a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Manchester Thursday, Bradley aides were alerting reporters that their man would go after Gore in his speech there. But while his remarks did include his most animated language on the issue to date, he stopped short of mentioning Gore directly.

"The Democratic Party has to own up to our own fund-raising scandals in the 1996 campaign. If we don't clean our own house, the Republicans are going to clean it for us in the fall," he told the crowd.

Afterward, Bradley spokeswoman Anita Dunn denied that the speech was anything new. "I think he's consistently said that both the Democratic and Republican Parties have a lot to be ashamed of in 1996. And clearly, if you look at what John McCain or any of the Republicans say as they campaign, they've made it very clear they plan to use it as an issue against the vice president."

That's the best argument in the hands of the Bradley partisans pushing to hit Gore hard on the issue: If you don't do it, the Republicans will. Proving the point, McCain Saturday said he would "beat Al Gore like a drum" on the issue of campaign-finance reform and that he would "turn to Al Gore and I'm going to point my finger at him and I'm going to say, 'Al, you and your buddy Bill Clinton debased the institutions of government in 1996.'"

While Bradley's spokesman Eric Hauser said "we're not about to open the window," on the internal debate, Bradley sources confirmed that Kerrey has been one of the chief advocates for Bradley to come after Gore as aggressively as possible.

Why the mixed messages from the Bradley brain trust? Probably because, when it comes to campaigning, Bradley has not simply backed himself into a corner, he's put himself in a glass house. His presidential effort, much like that of Sen. John McCain, has been all about seizing the moral and ethical high ground. On the stump, Bradley often talks about the "new politics," which he says is "guided by goodness."

The problem is, the old politics works. Despite what voters may say publicly, there is plenty of evidence that negative campaigning gets the job done, especially when the candidate who is hit doesn't fight back. The famous Willie Horton ad George Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988 was seen as one of the keys to Bush's come-from-behind victory. Another of those keys was that Dukakis never fought back. And here in New Hampshire, Bradley is reversing his slide thanks to the new willingness to strike back.

It started, in earnest, Wednesday night, when Bradley essentially called Gore a liar for distorting his record and questioned whether the vice president has the integrity to be president.

Then on the weekend he began to hammer Gore on the issue of abortion, launching a new campaign ad honing-in on Gore's change in position. While in Congress, Gore cast several anti-abortion votes, including one for the Hyde Amendment, which would have eliminated federal funding for abortion.

"It is my deep, personal conviction that abortion is wrong," Gore wrote in a July 18, 1984 letter to a Tennessee constituent. "Let me assure you that I share your belief that innocent human life must be protected, and I have an open mind on how to further this goal."

Bradley received an unlikely assist from Republican Gary Bauer when the two crossed paths briefly on the campaign trail in Manchester. "I almost fell off my chair when I heard Al Gore say he's always supported a woman's abortion rights," Bauer said. Of course, he could have just been buttering Bradley up for an autograph from the former New York Knicks forward, which Bauer said he got for his son.

Bradley received another unexpected boost from the arch-conservative Union Leader, New Hampshire's largest newspaper. "Prior to bringing his cloud of questionable ethics to New Hampshire for the campaign, Gore had a reputation for being an exaggerator and truth-dodger," the paper editorialized Sunday. "The cancer of the Clinton Presidency has mortally infected him, and he is ethically damaged beyond repair."

As Bradley's campaign gets more aggressive, some Democrats may worry about Steve Forbes Syndrome -- that the challenger could so cripple the party's nominee in the primary fight that he is dog meat come November. But campaign spokesman Eric Hauser said the notion was "ridiculous. Al Gore brought this on himself. He has a record and voters have a right to know about it."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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