Ballot Box

Al Gore, Harasser

So far, there have been three distinct phases to Al Gore’s campaign. In the first phase, which lasted until early autumn, Gore high-handedly ignored the fellow running against him in the Democratic primaries. In the second phase, which lasted until mid-November, Gore shook up his staff, welcomed Bill Bradley’s exciting challenge, and began responding to it as a vigorous competitor. Unfortunately, Gore’s campaign has now entered a third, much more aggressive phase, in which he nips too eagerly at Bradley’s ankles and attempts to bury his rival under a mountain of inconsistent and often spurious charges.

In recent days, Gore has passed up no opportunity to whack Bradley. He has criticized him over the cost of his health-care plan, its consequences for a variety of different minority groups, for his past positions on Social Security, for his lack of a position on Medicare, and even for not saying whether he would reappoint Alan Greenspan–a decision that will belong to the current president, not the next one. As my colleague Will Saletan recently argued in a “Frame Game” column, there’s nothing wrong with negative campaigning per se. But if some of Gore’s criticisms of Bradley are fair, others are totally unfair, and all are part of a transparent effort to keep his opponent on the defensive. It’s obnoxious political behavior. So why is Gore baiting Bradley like a schoolyard bully?

You can get a better sense of what Gore is doing by looking closely at one of his latest onslaughts, over the largely phony issue of whether Bradley intends to raise taxes. Last week, Bradley sat down for an interview with the Washington Post. Asked what he would do if his health-care plan required a tax increase, Bradley quite reasonably responded that he doesn’t believe it will require a tax increase, but that if it does, his options would include cutting other spending or raising taxes, and that he would make a judgment at the time. He was doing what any wise politician does, which is refusing to indulge a hypothetical question–though even his non-answer was more than he should have said. Bradley’s response looked like a juicy patch of exposed flesh for his crazed pit bull of a rival. “In today’s Washington Post, Senator Bradley stated he would be willing to raise taxes to pay for his trillion-dollar health-care plan,” said a press release sent out by the Gore campaign on Dec. 3. “That might be his worst idea yet.”

Gore’s criticism of Bradley’s comments was unfair. Though various analyses have suggested that Bradley’s health-care plan may require more funding than Bradley has yet acknowledged in order to be effective, Bradley has offered a plausible plan to pay for his proposal out of projected budget surpluses. And in his interview with the Post, Bradley didn’t put forward raising taxes as an “idea.” He said that because he couldn’t predict what would happen to the economy, it wouldn’t be prudent to rule out raising taxes in the future categorically.

Bradley’s campaign answered Gore’s tax-raising charge by pointing out that Bradley and Gore have essentially the same position on future tax increases. Neither thinks raising taxes will be necessary to pay for their own various initiatives, including health-care reforms. Nor has either of them made a read-my-lips pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances (and indeed, Gore, campaigning in Washington, D.C., specifically declined to make such a pledge today). In fact, Bradley’s campaign might have gone much further in pointing out the disingenuousness of Gore’s attack. Having campaigned with Bill Clinton on a middle-class tax cut in 1992, Gore reversed himself and supported a (necessary) tax increase in 1993. Moreover, Gore has supported tax increases on tobacco as recently as this year. Also, it just seems crazy for Democrats to start demanding “no new taxes” pledges from other Democrats. Then again, Republican candidates are now charging each other with endangering Social Security, which suggests that each party has to some extent been brainwashed by the other’s propaganda.

Bradley’s mild rebuttal provided an opportunity for Gore to slam him even harder. “Bill Bradley’s zigs and zags over the past few weeks raise questions about his steadiness as a possible steward of the American economy,” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said in his next release, dated Dec. 6. “One day he says he’ll consider new taxes to pay for his flawed, trillion-dollar health-care plan. The next day he says he didn’t really mean it. … These are confusing enough messages from Candidate Bradley. Just think what those statements would do to the markets if they came from a President.” And in a subsequent press release issued the same day, entitled “Can We Trust Bill Bradley To Keep the Economy Strong?” Lehane added: “Within the past few weeks, Bradley’s statements raise questions as to whether or not he has the vision and the experience to keep the economy strong.” Gore repeated these charges in person at an appearance yesterday at New York University Law School, where he received an endorsement from former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Gore accused Bradley of “proposing” a tax increase and described Bradley’s and Bush’s approaches to the economy as “if it ain’t broke, let’s break it.”

The unfairness of Gore’s accusations escalates in response to Bradley’s attempts to defend himself. Whether Bradley’s position on tax increases is reasonable or not, he clearly hasn’t zigzagged on the subject. He’s been entirely consistent. But a near-universal assumption in politics says that a candidate has to respond to charges made by serious opponents, lest those charges be generally accepted as true. So Bradley once again answered Gore’s accusation, this time by getting two supporters with credibility on economic issues–former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and Henry Kaufman–to issue a statement defending him. This prompted the Gore campaign to put out yet another release accusing Bradley of stonewalling and, somewhat bizarrely, of “name-calling.”

Gore seems to be assuming that if Bradley has to spend his time answering such charges, he won’t be able to get his “positive” message out. But Gore’s stratagem is even more diabolical than that. As one Gore aide explained to me, the pepper-spray of criticism leaves Bradley with a Hobson’s choice. Either he ignores it, in which case the charges damage him, or he responds in kind, in which case he diminishes his carefully cultivated reputation for high-mindedness. Once Bradley descends from his pedestal and begins trading insults with Gore, he loses his aura of saintliness and becomes just another scrapping politician.

I don’t think Bradley has quite figured out how to deal with this dilemma. His press secretary, Eric Hauser, told me that Gore’s assault “is not changing our strategy. It is not changing the dynamics of the race.” Bradley himself told the Post that he is intent on running a positive campaign and that he intends to shoot back only when Gore hits him with something “outrageous.” What Bradley doesn’t seem to have banked on is Gore’s accusing him of something outrageous every few hours.