Frame Game

Gore’s Debate Bait

For nearly a year, while Bill Bradley labored to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, Al Gore studiously ignored him. Last weekend, after Bradley surged past him in the fund-raising contest and in New Hampshire polls, Gore turned and opened fire. At an Iowa Democratic Party dinner, Gore challenged Bradley to debate him once a week. “How about it, Bill?” Gore taunted, looking straight at Bradley. “If the answer is yes, stand up and wave your hand.” Bradley sat on his hands, and the press reported excitedly that the momentum in the Democratic race had shifted. The debate challenge has changed the game by advancing several of Gore’s strategic objectives.

1.Kill Bradley’s momentum. For months, Gore has bled money and support, while Bradley has gained on him. In basketball, when one team makes this kind of “run,” the other team’s coach calls a timeout to defuse the hot team’s momentum and ruin its rhythm before the game gets out of hand. Since the strategy Gore had mapped out before the game has already been defeated and discarded, he has nothing to lose by tearing up his schedule to make room for debates. Bradley’s game plan, however, has been highly effective, and he has much to lose by being derailed from it. Even if Bradley ignores the challenge, it has supplanted his message as the campaign’s hot story. Every headline coming out of the Iowa dinner focused on Gore’s challenge and ignored Bradley’s good speech.

2.Reverse the expectations game. Gore has suffered from being perceived as the spoiled, stagnant front-runner. He wants (as Slate’s Jacob Weisberg has explained) to restyle himself as the underdog. And what does an underdog do? He dares the front-runner to debate him. The debate challenge helps persuade the media to cast Gore in this unlikely role. Gore gave a “scrappy” speech in Iowa and “offered himself as a feisty underdog,” reported the New York Times. “Bradley may no longer have the luxury of trying to be above politics–and repeated debates.”

3.Change the subject from character to issues. While Gore has appealed for support on the basis of his platform, Bradley has appealed for support on the basis of his character and life story. So far, Bradley’s biography has trumped Gore’s issues. Debates, which are organized around issues rather than personal history, would force Bradley to play Gore’s game. Since polls show that many voters who like Bradley don’t know his positions on the issues, he stands to lose some of his support by having to spell out his views. By pushing the contest in this direction, Gore’s challenge has already poisoned media coverage of Bradley. “The inability of many New Hampshire voters to identify Bradley’s positions on major issues could loom as a vulnerability,” says the Times.

4. MakeBradley address losing issues. Every candidate has issues on which he expects to win votes and issues on which he expects to lose votes. The rule is to talk about your winning issues and avoid your losing issues. Bradley’s winning issues are campaign reform, health care, and gun control. Gore wants to make him talk about three losing issues: Reaganomics (which hurts Bradley among Democrats because he voted for Reagan’s 1981 budget cuts), vouchers (Bradley’s past support of pilot voucher programs offends powerful teachers’ unions and Democratic voters who think vouchers threaten public schools), and ethanol (Bradley’s past opposition to ethanol subsidies irks Iowans, who count on these subsidies to prop up farmers). (For Michael Kinsley’s take on Bradley’s inconsistency on the ethanol question, click here.) This is why Gore specifically dared Bradley to debate him in Iowa on agriculture. Bradley can answer Gore’s criticisms–in interviews, he has already begun to do so–but politically, Bradley loses votes and momentum just by having to address these troublesome issues instead of his winners.

5. RecastGore as a fighter. For months, the media have depicted Gore as stiff, imperial, and out of touch. Bradley has played along, calling Gore “timid” and associating him with “entrenched power.” By daring Bradley to debate him, Gore confounds this characterization. Gore’s refrain in his Iowa speech–“stay and fight”–excited the pundits as well as the crowd. The Times said Gore’s “call to arms” conveyed “passion” and “suggested focus and purpose.” The Washington Post reported, “Gore sprang to life tonight, delivering one of his feistiest performances of the year.” A Times headline ventured, “Notion of a New Al Gore Begins to Take Root.”

6. RecastBradley as a coward. For the preceding reasons, Bradley has no strategic interest in debating Gore. He didn’t budge when Gore urged him to stand and accept the challenge, and Bradley’s aides brushed it aside, saying there would be “plenty of debates” down the road. But if Bradley keeps declining the challenge, Gore will turn the “timidity” argument against him. For weeks, with increasing explicitness, Gore has accused Bradley of “walking away from the fight” by voting for Reagan’s 1981 budget, opposing farm subsidies, and retiring from Congress after Republicans took full control in 1995. Gore’s surrogates have accused Bradley of “quitting” and “running” from battles. The media smell a new target. “By refusing to engage, Bradley opens himself up to being portrayed as a risk-averse, aloof politician who does not have the mettle … to fight emphatically for the nomination,” said the Times. “Will he hold up as a high-minded candidate,” asked the Post, or “will he be seen as just another politician who has … gone wobbly on his party on crucial fights?”

7.Seize the high ground. Bradley dismisses Gore’s criticisms as “darts.” “I am simply not going to get into dealing with the darts that are being thrown,” he says. “I think the American people want to have a positive vision of the future.” This rebuttal might have worked, but the debate challenge has thwarted it and has jeopardized Bradley’s posture as a straight-talking idealist. Questioning your opponent’s courage looks cynical, but calling for debates looks noble. Conversely, refusing to answer your opponent’s insults looks noble, but refusing to answer a debate challenge looks cynical. Gore is using his debate challenge as moral cover for his attacks on Bradley’s character, and the media are turning their scrutiny on Bradley’s “defensiveness” instead.

In his speech, Bradley handed Gore the perfect metaphor to make this point: baseball’s home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. “Why can’t it be Vice President Al Gore pushing Bill Bradley, and Bill Bradley pushing Al Gore to be the best we can be?” Bradley asked. Gore proceeded to hit this pitch out of the park, telling the crowd that if the two sluggers had “stayed in the dugout” and “didn’t step up to the plate, they wouldn’t hit many home runs.” Sunday’s Los Angeles Times headline made clear who had won the exchange: “Gore Asks Bradley to Step Up to Debate Plate.”

You have to feel sorry for Bradley. Having ignored him throughout the campaign, Gore has decided–at a moment oozing with political expediency–to reverse course, demand an open exchange, and cast himself as the idealist. Meanwhile, the media are playing along, hoping to egg on the fight. In an interview with the Post after the Iowa showdown, Bradley again ducked the debate question, declining to “lay all the cards out on the table” just because Gore suddenly finds it convenient. As a strategist, Bradley knows he’d be an idiot to debate Gore. And the last thing Bradley can afford is to look like a strategist.