Bradley's noble try at fair campaign fight

March 15, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the campaign trail as on the dance floor, it takes two to tango. Because Bill Bradley failed to understand that, and because Al Gore understood it all too well, Mr. Bradley's noble effort to elevate presidential campaigning never got anywhere.

The outcome does not, however, denigrate the attempt, though it most likely will be a long time before another presidential candidate tries, for good and practical reason.

Mr. Bradley's idealistic plan to run a completely positive campaign, talking only about his own ambitious proposals and saying nothing about his opponent, depended for success from the start on Mr. Gore's willingness to walk the high road with him. But that never was in the cards, especially as Mr. Gore's campaign stumbled in the early going, to the point that Mr. Bradley's tortoise-like progress eventually made him a serious contender.

From that point on, Mr. Gore to recover did what he does best: attack, probing for potential weaknesses in Mr. Bradley's ideas and never hesitating to misrepresent or distort them if doing so served his purpose. It was an approximate rerun of what then-Vice President George Bush did to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, with the same result.

Mr. Bradley's most prominent and ambitious proposal, to provide health-care insurance for every child and make it accessible to every adult American, was Mr. Gore's first target. Mr. Gore not only questioned its cost, which was legitimate enough; he deliberately and unfairly contended that the plan would leave the nation's poor and elderly with less protection than under Medicaid.

Mr. Bradley's plan would have replaced Medicaid with a federal subsidy for recipients to obtain private health care, the amount based on a calculation of prevailing costs of such coverage in each state. But as Mr. Gore put it at first, Mr. Bradley's plan would "eliminate Medicaid," without mentioning he would replace it with something better.

When the former New Jersey senator complained that Mr. Gore was misstating the plan, Mr. Gore in his attacks added that Mr. Bradley would substitute "vouchers" for Medicaid, using a word that in the context of school choice is anathema to many Democrats. When Mr. Bradley complained that he wasn't advocating vouchers, Mr. Gore changed his observation to "vouchers, or as Bill Bradley prefers, `subsidies.' "

To the average voter, this probably seemed like meaningless hair-splitting. But it was illustrative of the way Mr. Gore deftly tore down the Bradley plan with inaccurate scare tactics. He also charged that the Bradley approach would hurt African-Americans, and in their debate in Harlem he implied that Mr. Bradley supported racial profiling because it was used by police in his home state.

On another major Bradley campaign proposal, campaign finance reform, the Gore campaign repeatedly charged that Mr. Bradley had never shown any interest in the subject during his 18 years in the Senate, when in fact Mr. Bradley had sponsored reform legislation during his tenure.

Finally, however, a battered Mr. Bradley began to hit back, accusing Mr. Gore of not telling the truth about his proposals and questioning whether he could be trusted to tell the truth as president. Mr. Gore pounced on him again, this time saying he was the one going negative, after promising to stay on the high road.

In the end, Mr. Bradley's lofty objectives -- not only campaign finance reform and universal health care but also ending child poverty and racial division -- all bit the dust. Chances are he would have lost even had Mr. Gore walked the high road. The trouble is, it may be a long time before another candidate tries.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun'sWashington Bureau.

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