Heating up the Bradley-Gore debate

November 25, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- If Vice President Al Gore's campaign had been under the impression that Democratic rival Bill Bradley's vow to run a positive campaign meant he would be a sitting duck, the Gore forces should be disabused of that notion by the former senator's remarks on campaign finance reform in New Hampshire this week.

Mr. Bradley, suggesting that Mr. Gore's proposals for reform were hypocritical, pointedly alluded to "questions about where politics ended and government began in the Clinton-Gore fund-raising efforts" of 1996. That was when the president and vice president were found to have solicited campaign money from the White House, with some contributors enjoying sleepovers in the Lincoln bedroom.

On the road again

Apparently what inspired Mr. Bradley to remind voters of this touchy history in the Gore vice-presidency was a report that Mr. Gore had met with Clinton Cabinet members to solicit their help in providing official vice-presidential travel for him next spring.

By that time, the Gore campaign treasury may be depleted by having had to ward off Mr. Bradley's challenge in the early Democratic primaries and caucuses. Mr. Bradley mentioned that report to point out that politics-as-usual continued to reign, regardless of Mr. Gore's ostensible advocacy of campaign finance reform. Such a practice is indeed politics as usual. The eventual GOP presidential nominee in 1996, Bob Dole, resorted to a similar device after using up most of his campaign funds fighting off a multiple challenge for his party's nomination. Mr. Dole tapped into state party and other GOP funds to keep his candidacy afloat until he received the federal largesse that goes to the major-party nominees after their conventions.

Meaningless pact

Mr. Bradley also reminded voters of the "famous handshake" between President Clinton and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a forum on campaign finance reform in Claremont, N.H., in early 1995, when both vowed to see to it that Congress would bring about significant change. Noting that "nothing happened" thereafter, Mr. Bradley said the reason was that "no one in Washington wants the system changed," and that "there has always been a secret handshake . . . [that] signals an agreement among politicians not to upset a system that they use to their advantage."

It is certainly true that a significant number of members of Congress don't want campaign finance reform, and that most of them are Republicans, who historically have been much more effective in raising money. But the House did pass modest reform legislation this year barring unregulated "soft" money and a majority of the Senate voted for the same, but a Republican filibuster killed the effort.

Still, Mr. Bradley can't be blamed in terms of political tactics for blasting Congress on the issue and including Mr. Gore as a target, considering the vice president's vulnerability. As the "outsider" in the Democratic race, having left the Senate voluntarily after 18 years, Mr. Bradley clearly wants Mr. Gore to be seen as tied to the status quo, and to Mr. Clinton especially, whose hands also are not clean after his 1996 fund-raising excesses to win re-election.

Mr. Bradley's remarks are not the first in which he has gone after Mr. Gore, and Mr. Clinton, too, on their records in office rather than on personal grounds. Two weeks ago in a Chicago speech, after praising their universal health care proposals of 1993, he said Mr. Gore had learned "the wrong lesson" from their defeat, "that big things can't get done in Washington," and so had trimmed his health care plan to "timid" proportions.

A fine line

It seems clear from all this that Mr. Bradley does not intend to let his carefully established reputation for positive campaigning inhibit him from engaging Mr. Gore on issues where they differ. Doing so without being perceived as "going negative" will require walking a fine line, and the Gore campaign can be depended on to do what it can to goad him from it.

But with Mr. Gore himself having raised the decibel level against Mr. Bradley, charging that he quit political combat when the going got rough, the senator probably has some maneuvering room left before he loses his self-constructed image as Candidate Clean.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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