Bradley, Gore in dull duel

January 10, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

BEDFORD, N.H. --- The central lesson to be drawn from the Democratic debates so far may be that Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley have nothing to say to one another. Or, at least, nothing interesting that would help primary voters make a choice.

On the contrary, they have used their debates to demonstrate that their disagreements, to the extent that they exist at all, are about ways and means, not goals and policies.

The issue on which the two Democratic presidential candidates have been generating the most heat has been health care. Mr. Gore has been making a show of outrage about Mr. Bradley's plan to make health insurance coverage universally available to the 40-some million Americans not covered now.

The Bradley plan, according to Mr. Gore, would have unintended consequences that, among other things, would do violence to Medicare, Medicaid and the federal budget. His own plan, the vice president suggests, would eventually provide the same solutions with different mechanisms.

Health matters

The significant thing, nonetheless, is that the two Democrats have placed the health care issue at the head of their agendas. And if the voters don't understand the difference between a "cap" and a "weighted average," so what?

What the voters do understand is that it doesn't make sense to give too much weight to the specific details of campaign proposals. Once someone is elected, there is still a long process of compromise and negotiation required before a promise becomes a program.

One of the problems for this generation is that there are no watershed issues of the kind that have been used to sort out Democrats in the past.

The two Democrats are approaching this problem in quite different ways. Mr. Gore keeps trying to find issues on which Mr. Bradley might be thrown on the defensive. Thus, for example, the vice president keeps bringing up the votes for experiments with school vouchers that Mr. Bradley cast in the Senate. But the notion that Democrats are going to be energized by their outrage at Mr. Bradley's independence of liberal dogma on a couple of questions is laughable.

Mr. Gore is also playing the experience card heavily, suggesting in debates and his campaign appearances that his seven years as vice president have equipped him in a most special way for the White House. Indeed, with other Democrats, this seems to be the most popular rationale for supporting Mr. Gore.

There is, however, another side of that coin. When he stresses his experience, the vice president calls more attention to his relationship with President Clinton, a dubious asset with voters suffering the infamous "Clinton fatigue."

Mr. Bradley's approach is strikingly different. He is trying to present the choice as one between politics as usual as practiced by Mr. Gore and his own commitment to grand notions of change.

With the nation in such good health, economically and otherwise, Mr. Bradley argues that the time is ripe to attack key problems with full-scale commitments to change. The answer to the health care problem, Mr. Bradley argues, is not incremental improvement but radical reform. Mr. Gore suggests that his rival simply lacks the vision and the boldness required to deal with such deep-rooted problems as the climate of racial resentment and suspicion that still prevails in the nation.

Moreover, Mr. Bradley argues, as the longtime ally of President Clinton, Mr. Gore is still too much on the defensive politically -- what he called being "in the bunker" in their debate in Durham the other night.

In the end, the Democratic primary voters will have to decide whether they are so comfortable with Mr. Gore that they are unwilling to take a risk with Mr. Bradley. This decision will rest heavily on the images the two Democrats project over the next several weeks.

And it may depend at least in part on which candidate appears to have the best chance for keeping the White House in Democratic hands. The one thing already clear is that it is not a decision that will be dictated by stark differences on issues.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 140 Years of Covering Politics."

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