The Magazine

The Politics of Bradley Destruction

Here's the new strategy of the Gore campaign -- attack, attack, attack

Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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HOW SEVERE IS THE HEALTH care crisis? I'll tell you, said Al Gore during a speech at a New Hampshire hospital recently. Thanks to the greed and unchecked power of the pharmaceutical industry, many Americans must leave the country in order to find affordable life-sustaining drugs. "Does anybody here go to Canada to buy prescriptions?" Gore asked the crowd. No one said a word. At last a woman near the back raised her hand. Actually, the woman explained, she personally had never bought medicine in Canada, but "my babysitter does." Or may have. The woman wasn't absolutely sure. Gore nodded. You could almost see him making a mental note never to ask the Canada question again. "Maybe you hear more about it in the news media than it actually happens," he conceded.

Gore shouldn't have to have exchanges like this. It should be easy for him to make the case that during the seven years he has been vice president the state of the nation has improved dramatically. The stock market is over 11,000. Unemployment has all but disappeared. Foreign threats, such as they are, barely register with the voting public. Gore ought to be able to run for president on a stay-the-course platform: Vote for me and keep a good thing going. Instead, here he is on a weekday morning trying to convince a roomful of polar fleece-clad yuppies that they are suffering terribly at the hands of Big Business. The high cost of prescription drugs may be a genuine burden for some people, but in Gore's hands the issue sounds comically small, like an Andy Rooney routine ("Prescription drugs -- don't you just hate going to Canada to buy them?").

Not that it really mattered. Gore's real point was not that prescription drugs are too expensive to buy, but that his challenger for the Democratic nomination -- Bill Bradley, resident of the pharmaceutical industry's home state, the Senator from Merck -- would do nothing to make them more affordable. Gore spent perhaps a third of his speech attacking Bradley's health care proposal. Bradley's plan, he told the audience, is both recklessly profligate and heartlessly stingy. At a cost of at least $ 1 trillion, it is a wild-eyed spending scheme that would wipe out the budget surplus and imperil Medicare. At the same time, Gore said, Bradley's plan "would require seniors to spend $ 800 of their own money before getting one penny" for prescription drugs.

As Gore spoke, his aides canvassed the room distributing a handout, still warm from the copier, that accused Bradley of seeking to "put millions of America's most vulnerable at risk." A short time later, aides reappeared with a new sheet of talking points, this one hammering Bradley on campaign finance reform. In 1990, it said, a newspaper described Bradley's reelection effort as among the "year's most nauseating examples of campaign excess." In 1997 and 1998, the Gore campaign charged, "Bradley pocketed millions of dollars from special interest groups," mostly in fees for speeches.

Gore kept up his assaults on Bradley throughout the day. At one point he even attacked Bradley for resenting his attacks. "Some of his campaign workers think I shouldn't raise questions about his platform," Gore told one audience. "That's what democracy is all about."

Doesn't rhetoric like this diminish Gore? "There's an elite tendency to complain about it," says Bob Shrum, Gore's chief message consultant in Washington. Columnists and television commentators, Shrum says, "seem to think somehow this is about patty cake, or that we're supposed to have some kind of rarefied discussion in the sky."

Ordinary people, by contrast, appreciate it when Gore "draws issue comparisons. People don't think it's negative to talk about the difference between your health care policy and his health care policy, your education policy, his education policy. How the hell are voters supposed to make up their minds?" In any case, says Shrum, going after Bradley "has brought focus and definition to what was a pretty unfocused campaign."