Bill Bradley’s most impressive quality as a senator – his self-sufficiency – has done him no good as a campaigner.
In 1984, with his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination suddenly surging, Gary Hart looked at his staff and realized they were in over their heads. This was not a strong enough team to knock off front-runner and former vice-president Walter Mondale. Hart had gained ground simply because he wasn’t Mondale. Now he was going to have to run a real campaign with a real strategy to win the nomination and another campaign with another strategy to win the general election. He knew what he needed: a proven campaign strategist. “Get me a Russert,” he said.
Hart wanted “a” Russert because the Russert was unavailable. Tim Russert was in Albany, advising Mario Cuomo and getting ready to make his move to NBC. As a senator contemplating a run for president, Hart had kept his eye on Senate staff who he thought could help him someday. No one impressed Hart more than Russert, who served as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s top Senate aide and campaign manager before directing Cuomo’s emergence as a national political figure. Russerts are always hard to come by for a challenger like Hart, since the front-runner usually has all of them signed up already. But at least Hart knew he needed one, which is more than we can say for Bill Bradley.
Bradley did not use his time in the Senate to scout talent for his presidential campaign. He had good working relationships with the most important staff on the Hill – the majority and minority leaders’ top aides and the chiefs of staff of the committees he was assigned to – but he would have had trouble coming up with the name of anyone who worked for any other senator. His attention to his own team was minimal because he was the least staff-dependent member of the Senate. He knew tax and trade policy – the two most complex areas of government – better than his advisers. In hearings, when his turn came to question the likes of Alan Greenspan, he was not one of the many who depended on large-print questions placed in his staff-written briefing book.
At the end of last summer, when Bradley started to pick up momentum simply by not being Gore – and winning New Hampshire was no longer a pipe dream – Bradley did not ask for a Russert. By the end of October, the Bradley campaign was beginning to sink in a way that only a Russert would have been able to stop.
Al Gore’s October surprise was to attack Bradley’s plan to replace Medicaid (the federal government’s health-care program for the poor) with a system that would subsidize the purchase of private health insurance for those who could not otherwise afford it. Gore’s first line of assault was to assert that Bradley’s subsidy plan would harm Medicare, the government’s more lavish health-care program for senior citizens. How could a Medicaid-replacement plan that had nothing to do with Medicare harm Medicare? Because, said Gore, it was a new spending program that would reduce the amount of money available for Medicare. Since any form of government spending reduces the amount of money left for anything else, you could make that same case against any new spending proposal of any size, including the Clinton laundry lists of new spending that appeared in every State of the Union address. It would not be a point worthy of much rebuttal in the Senate.
“In the face of the Medicare attack, Bradley should have dropped the holier-than-thou campaigning style. It was time to cash in the goodwill he’d earned and return Gore’s fire with an explosion of articulate outrage.”
In keeping with his campaign style of trying to appear above the fray, Bradley did not immediately respond. In debates, Bradley mounted technical, jargon-filled defenses of his plan while Gore pushed much simpler points: Bradley would “eliminate Medicaid” and endanger Medicare. This turned out to be the ideal roadblock to throw up between Bradley and the most reliable Democratic constituencies: minorities and senior citizens. Bradley’s clearest response came in the January 8 debate when he replied, as if little more needed to be said, “What we have here is a scare tactic.”
By last week’s debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, Bradley seemed in an outright panic over Gore’s attack. Bradley’s defense was loud but unclear – still impenetrable policy-speak, and a bit frantic. More important, it did not shift the focus to his accuser’s credibility, a soft spot ever since Gore invoked the “no controlling legal authority” defense of his fund-raising techniques.
Bradley should have been very worried about what Gore was up to way back in October. In campaigning, nothing is more effective than scare tactics. And no scare tactic has ever been more effective than the Clinton-Gore Medicare scare tactic. They did it to Bob Dole in 1996 and never looked back once the message that Dole’s tax cuts would eat into Medicare took hold in the summer. They’d never done it to a Democrat before, but these were desperate times for the vice-president of the United States.
In the face of the Medicare attack, Bradley should have immediately dropped the holier-than-thou campaign style that was serving him so well. It was time to cash in the goodwill earned with the press and the public and return Gore’s fire with an explosion of articulate outrage. A special event with a senior-citizen audience should have been arranged within 24 hours, preferably in Florida, where Bradley happened to be when Gore lobbed his first grenade. Bradley should have stepped out of character and found his loudest volume to defend himself on Medicare and turn the story into a low blow by Gore.
A Russert would have grabbed the candidate by the lapels, figuratively, of course, and forced him to do what had to be done. Bradley’s Russert would need to have a command of policy and politics and the personal authority to lead a headstrong man where he did not want to go. No one in the Bradley campaign has that kind of sway with the candidate.
Last week, a CBS poll showed that the No. 1 policy reason why Iowa-caucus voters chose Gore was his strong support for Medicare. Surely few of those voters knew that everything Gore criticized in the Bradley health plan was also part of the Bill and Hillary Clinton health-care plan that Al Gore pushed so hard in 1994. Like the Bradley plan, the Clinton-Gore plan would have eliminated Medicaid and replaced it with a subsidy for poor people to buy health insurance; it would have done nothing to help finance Medicare. But the Clinton-Gore plan would have cost almost ten times what the Bradley plan would cost. The plan Al Gore backed would not only have kept the federal budget in deficit, according to the independent Congressional Budget Office, it would have added $74 billion to the deficit by now. A Russert would have made sure that Iowa voters knew that. And the flurry of Bradley press releases papering New Hampshire this week is probably too little, too late.