On the defensive after continued questions about Vice President Al Gore's tendency to tell stories that don't hold up under scrutiny, the Gore campaign launched a personal attack of its own Saturday, slamming George W. Bush by insinuating that the governor's intellectual skills leave something to be desired.
The charge, issued by Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway, came following a Saturday campaign stop in Florida, after Bush attempted to describe how a single mother who makes $22,000 a year manages to pay a higher marginal rate on each dollar than someone who makes $200,000.
"For the first time she's in the 15 percent bracket," Bush said. "When you add another 15 percent or 16.2 percent payroll tax on top of that, plus the 2.9, I mean the payroll tax and the Medicare tax, 16.4 percent you end up with a high marginal rate."
According to an account in Reuters, Bush then paused, leaned away from his microphone and "appeared to be checking his arithmetic, to see if the numbers were right. Apparently, the answer was no, because the Texan recovered by throwing out random percentages."
''Fifteen-point-three percent," Bush said. "Twelve-point-four. Two-point-nine. I was trying to do some fuzzy math. I used [Gore's] calculator.''
In a statement sent to reporters, Hattaway said "Bush is routinely unable to string together a coherent sentence to explain his own proposals. Americans will decide whether Bush's uncertain command of the facts and his garbled language bear on his ability to be an effective leader."
The Bush campaign did not immediately return a call for a comment.
In an interview, Hattaway insisted that he wasn't calling Bush dumb, even though that's what his statement certainly seemed to imply. "We're only asking that he address this constant fumbling over the issues and his own proposals," Hattaway said. "People will decide what to make of it."
Asked if he thought Bush was smart enough to be president, Hattaway told Salon, "Um" -- long pause -- "I'm not making any comments about his intelligence, only about his ability to explain his own proposals."
Asked again what he thought, Hattaway said, "it doesn't matter what I think. But the Governor's statement raises the question of why he can't explain his own proposals."
A senior Gore adviser said Hattaway's statement was less a major strategy shift and more an expression of irritation that Bush and his supporters were jumping on every single word out of Gore's mouth, labeling him a liar. Thus, the adviser said, "today seemed like a good opportunity to put Bush back on the defensive, on an issue he hasn't had to seriously address: his constant fumbling."
The defensiveness began Friday afternoon, when Condoleezza Rice, the chief foreign policy adviser for Bush, participated in a conference call to assure reporters, apparently, that her boss wasn't a dum-dum.
That wasn't quite how she would put it, of course. A more generous assessment of the call was that Rice valiantly tried to change reporters' impressions of an exchange between Bush and Vice President Al Gore during Tuesday's presidential debate. The back and forth, about Russia's possible involvement in the crisis in Yugoslavia, left many observers -- even Republicans -- wondering if Bush had any idea what he was talking about.
"The foreign-policy debate prep team needs to turn it up a notch," Scott Reed, the campaign manager for '96 GOP nominee Bob Dole, told the Wall Street Journal Friday. "Whichever of Bush's policy advisers suggested that we turn to Russia's Vladimir Putin as a mediator did the G.O.P. candidate a disservice," conservative columnist William Safire wrote in Thursday's New York Times.
It was Rice's job to counter these impressions, and to explain what Bush had meant when, in response to a question during the debate, he was asked what action the U.S. should take if, as was a possibility at the time, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to accept the election of his rival, Vojislav Kostunica, and leave office.
"This would be an interesting moments for the Russians to step up and lead as well," Bush said, according to transcrips. "It would be a wonderful time for the president of Russia to step into the Balkans and convince Mr. Milosevic it's in his best interest and his country's best interest to leave office. The Russians have got a lot of sway in that part of the world and we'd like to see them use that sway to encourage democracy to take hold."
Rice said that Bush was merely arguing that Russian president Vladimir Putin needed to try to convince Milosevic that it was time to go.
But at the time, Putin, unlike dozens of world leaders, hadn't even accepted that Kostunica had won. "Now I understand what the governor has said about asking the Russians to be involved and under some circumstances that might be a good idea," Gore said. "But being as they have not yet been willing to recognize Kostunica as the lawful winner of the election, I'm not sure that it's right for us to invite the president of Russia to mediate this dispute there because we might not like the result that comes out of that. They currently favor going forward with a runoff election. I think that's the wrong thing."
Rice says Gore "misrepresented" Bush's position, since Bush had not actually called for Russia to mediate. "Clearly he did not mean that Putin should mediate this conflict," Rice clarified. "He knew that the Russians were not at that point in time in agreement."
But that's not what Bush seemed to indicate in his offended reply to Gore's dismissal of his suggestion. "Well, obviously we wouldn't use the Russians if they didn't agree with our answer, Mr. Vice President," Bush said.
Gore responded with cold condescension: "Well, they don't."
Rice didn't just argue that Bush's comments were actually, in retrospect, right. (Which, it should be noted, she didn't do until three days after the debate, and one day after Putin finally accepted Kostunica's election.) Rice took it one step further. She tried to tar Gore as sinister.
Since President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and U.S. national security advisor Sandy Berger had been working behind the scenes to lobby Putin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and national security advisor Sergei Ivanov to join the rest of the world in backing Kostunica's election, Rice said that Gore was dissing Bush's idea -- even while his own administration was in the midst of carrying it out.
"Either he didn't know that the administration was heavily involved in working with the Russians," Rice concluded, "or he deliberately said something for political purposes to mock Governor Bush when he knew that Governor Bush was right." Rice's logic: Either Gore was out of the loop, or just a liar.
Rice's word choice when discussing when she complained about Gore's action -- "mock" - seemed instructive. One mocks someone one feels is inferior. Which Bush seemed to be, which is the real issue here, after all, isn't it? The overall problem is that Bush seemed clearly in over his head only a few minutes into a discussion of a very significant current event.
If Bush wasn't proposing that Putin mediate between Milosevic and Kostunica, Bush could have corrected Gore's assessment of his remarks.
Like, perhaps, by saying, "I was by no means suggesting that Putin mediate, Mr. Gore, I was saying that they need to lean on Milosevic to show that they indeed support democracy as they say they do."
Bush could have said that -- he could have corrected Gore -- but he didn't.
Rice said that the format hadn't allowed for it, since the answer period for that subject was almost over. But instead, Bush added to the fire by saying that "obviously we wouldn't use the Russians if they didn't agree with our answer."
Since at the time, the Russians didn't seem to agree with "our answer," Bush's second statement revealed an even deeper lack of understanding than did his earlier statement.
Rice also said she was offended that Gore had said that "the governor's instinct is not necessarily bad because we have worked with the Russians in a constructive way in Kosovo, for example."
"Saying 'the governor's instinct is not necessarily bad' is something of a putdown," she said. "It's a more clever way of trying to challenge the governor's experience."
Reporter after reporter read the transcript of the exchange back to Rice to see where exactly Gore had offended her so. "You really have to go back into Tuesday night and watch this rather than read the transcript," Rice said.