Ballot Box

Bradley and Gore Slug It Out Over Poverty

BROOKLYN, N.Y.–In the Democratic primary, revised version, Al Gore plays Avis to Bill Bradley’s Hertz. Bradley was scheduled to give a major address on child poverty at a Baptist church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn today. So Gore cobbled together his own proposal and launched a preemptive strike at a Methodist church in a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., yesterday. This new Gore is a cheeky bastard. A Gore aide even showed up at the Bradley campaign’s pre-address press briefing to hand out fact sheets criticizing Bradley’s anti-poverty record.

Irksome as the feisty new Al is to Team Bradley, his aggressiveness is already making for a better and more interesting campaign. When both candidates lay out their proposals on a given subject at the same time, we journalists are impelled to compare and contrast them. And in this case, the exercise is illuminating. What the two anti-poverty proposals make clear is that while Gore may be trying to steal Bradley’s thunder, he isn’t imitating his proposals at all. The two agree about some of the main points–increasing the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and fully funding Head Start. But they have fundamentally different attitudes about how the federal government should go about helping poor people.

The most striking difference is in the way the two candidates frame the problem. Gore takes a thoroughly Clintonized, New Democratic approach to poverty, emphasizing the need for personal responsibility and New Covenant-style reciprocity between government and benefit-recipient. He cast this week’s proposal as the “Next Step in Welfare Reform“–an effort to “Strengthen Families, Reduce Child Poverty, Promote Responsible Fatherhood.” The nuances of language are significant. Note that Gore avoids separating out his proposals for helping the poor. Subscribing, like Bill Clinton, to the idea that suburban voters don’t like Democrats enamored of liberal spending programs, Gore sandwiches his generosity toward the poor between more middle-class friendly ideas. The objective of reducing (not eliminating) poverty comes attached to two other ideas–“helping parents make time for their children” and what he characterized in his speech as “cracking down on deadbeats who abandon their children.” Gore’s proposal is filled with coercive and punitive mechanisms. He would require poor mothers to sign “individual responsibility plans.” He would require fathers who owe child support to go either to work or to jail.

Bradley, by contrast, talks like an only slightly chastened Mondale liberal. His “Child Poverty in America” speech (available at offers the soaring aspirations of LBJ’s war on poverty–though without the programmatic reach or generous funding. “I am issuing a simple challenge today,” he said. “Let us eliminate child poverty as we know it in America by the end of the next decade.” In place of the Clintonian buzzword “responsibility,” Bradley calls for “justice.” Where Gore favors “tough love,” Bradley offers “unconditional sympathy.” And instead of proposing coercive systems to make poor women work and poor men support their families, Bradley suggests various ways of raising their incomes to the poverty line. In other words, where Gore views poverty as partly a moral failing, Bradley views it as simply a lack of money. If in the end he doesn’t offer very much money to address the problem, it’s because he knows that any Democratic president elected in 2000 would lack the political capital for more than a modest “down-payment,” which is how he described his plan.

There are two specific areas that highlight these differences in approach. Perhaps the clearest difference is on the issue of the 1996 welfare-reform bill, which Gore supported and Bill Bradley voted against, on his way out of the Senate. “As a result of welfare reform, millions of families have moved from the dependency of welfare to the dignity of work,” Gore said in his speech. Bradley, on the other hand, didn’t refer at all to the welfare-reform bill of 1996, which required states to adopt time limits and work requirements. Asked what Bradley thinks now of welfare reform, his press secretary, Eric Hauser, said “that it had some fundamental flaws in terms of the federal government simply handing money over to the states” and that Bradley continues to harbor “some doubts about its long-term viability.” The problem for Bradley is that welfare reform is working remarkably well. Someday soon, Gore will club him over the head with this issue, and Bradley will deserve it.

A similar distinction in tone and approach marks what the two have to say about “deadbeat dads.” Bradley takes a kind of Ad Council approach. In his speech, he called on fathers to realize “that having a child is a lifetime commitment.” Gore would give them no other option. He wants to take away their credit cards, on top of their driver’s licenses and passports, while attaching their bank accounts and garnishing their wages. Gore then proposes throwing them in jail if they refuse to work. Somewhat comically, he follows this call for relentless harassment and involuntary servitude with a proposal to “encourage more fathers to acknowledge paternity.”

In general, I think both Gore’s and Bradley’s approaches are somewhat flawed. Many of Gore’s ideas seem gimmicky and poll-driven. There’s a Dick Morris-1995 flavor to the inventive punishments applied to absent fathers, the public enemies who have no friends. The more substantive part of what Gore proposes–an increase in the EITC, marriage-penalty relief, an expanded family-leave act–is fine, but unduly modest in its ambition. There are other things we as a country can do about poverty: offer last-resort jobs to welfare recipients and replace public housing projects with more humane alternatives. But Gore seems to lack the guts to confront the issue of poverty directly. And despite his reputation for wonkery, most of Gore’s ideas are far too vague–much more so than Bradley’s. His fact sheet doesn’t explain how his measures would really work. Nor does it acknowledge how much they would cost or say where the money would come from.

Bradley’s plan has many of the opposite defects. His rhetoric is bold and sweeping but bears little relation to the substance of his $9.8 billion plan, which is modest and incremental. Eliminating child poverty in a decade, which is what Bradley says he can accomplish (albeit with the old “as we know it” hedge), is simply an absurd goal. It’s war-on-poverty-style over-promising without any war-on-poverty cavalry to back it up. Continuing to reduce poverty at the rate it has been dropping during the past eight years would be a far more plausible aspiration.

Since the 1980s, the conventional wisdom has been that Democrats who are too interested in helping poor people get their heads handed to them. Gore’s problem is that he seems to believe this. Bradley’s problem is that he seems to believe it, too, but pretends he doesn’t.