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How to tell them apart

cover image

The Gore-Bradley battle gets personal as the race heats up. But what are the real differences between them?


January 10, 2000
Web posted at: 11:04 a.m. EST (1604 GMT)

There's a moment worth waiting for during every Democratic presidential debate these days--the moment when Bill Bradley's feelings for Al Gore bob into view like a big chunk of ice on a cold gray sea. "Maybe you weren't in the loop, Al." "The point is, Al--and I don't know if you get this--but a political campaign is not just a performance for people." "Let me explain to you, Al, how the private sector works." At such times, Bradley looks at the Vice President as if Gore had suddenly morphed into an overripe mackerel; Bradley's voice, normally so flat and affectless, drips with sarcasm and a condescension that borders on contempt. Because to Bradley, who really does see himself as a better class of politician, Gore is an opportunist driven by ambition instead of principle--the kind of candidate who will demand on Wednesday that his Pentagon leaders support gays in the military, then backpedal on Friday. "Bill sees Gore as a smaller guy, a smaller guy all around," says someone close to Bradley. "Gore leapt at the vice presidency, a job Bill would never have taken, because [Gore]'s devoted to furthering his career over all else." And last fall, when Gore saw that Bradley's high-minded pitch was working in New Hampshire, he stole it and started talking about "elevating our democracy" by running "a different kind of campaign"--all Bradley-speak. Sometimes Bradley can't stand him.

And sometimes the feeling is mutual. Gore views Bradley as a slave to his own self-regard, a man whose sanctimony is an ineffective and even hypocritical approach to politics. Gore's lieutenants love to point out Bradley's contradictions: he spent $2 million on his polling operation in his 1990 Senate race--an early attempt at Clinton-style values polling--yet claims to hate poll-driven politics. He calls himself a crusader against corporate tax loopholes, yet came out in support of ethanol subsidies that chiefly benefit one conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland, because he wants to curry favor with Iowa farmers. "What's fatal," says a Gore strategist, "is holding yourself up as superior."

The candidates' disdain was on display last week as the battle for the nomination began to crackle. The Iowa caucuses are two weeks away, the New Hampshire primary three weeks away. Young Gore and Bradley volunteers are starting to tussle in the streets, and the candidates are tussling onstage. Last Wednesday in Durham, N.H., and on Saturday in Johnston, Iowa, Gore was hammering away at Bradley's health-care plan, as usual, and Bradley was sneering back at him, employing his recent tactic of responding to Gore attacks by pointing out their theatricality. In these instances, though, Gore didn't sigh or groan while Bradley spoke. And he didn't even distort Bradley's positions. He merely pointed out that Bradley's proposed monthly health-care subsidy, the one that's supposed to replace Medicaid, wouldn't be enough to buy coverage for poor people in either state. So when Bradley gave him that dead-fish look, the former Senator just came off as peevish, like a college professor who hates it when a grad student challenges his lecture.

"Bill gets a little out of sorts when I talk about the substance of the policy," said Gore in Durham, smiling sweetly and obviously having fun getting under Bradley's skin. He had just suggested that Bradley lacks "the experience to keep our prosperity going," and that Bradley "wants to blow the whole surplus" on an "unwise" plan, and then he stuck the knife in further: "I think he's a genuinely good person." Ouch. Gore was practicing an age-old Southern put-down: if you're going to say something snide in polite society, sprinkle a little sugar on it for extra effect.

The way Bradley and Gore see it, the primaries offer a clear choice--the Washington bunker, as Bradley calls it, vs. the ivory tower. Bradley says that after two terms in the Clinton Administration, Gore has become one of those politicians who "stay too long and fight too much." But Gore is proud of his bunker. He's pleased to be a gladiator in the arena too--a pro who knows how to get the job done, who didn't leave town but stuck around to fight Newt Gingrich--because "the presidency is not an academic exercise or seminar; it's a daily fight." He dismisses Bradley's "maximalist measures" as having no chance of becoming law in the real world. Bradley's rejoinder: "The Democratic Party should be thinking big things with big ambitions ... Where would the country be today if Franklin Roosevelt said Social Security's too difficult to do?"

All this squabbling over personal style brings to mind the old saw about academic infighting: in this case, the battles are so bitter because the differences are so small. Listening to Gore and Bradley, you'd think they were worlds apart in personality and policy, but in truth they are strikingly similar; in crucial ways, their personalities and habits of mind tend to mirror each other, so that choosing between them can seem like picking a sweater from the J. Crew catalog: Do you want it in slate or charcoal?

Both are reserved men who have worked hard to overcome their introspective natures, methodical operators who plot every step in advance and show up for Meet the Press in identical blue suits and red ties. They are both cautious, but after suffering midcareer setbacks at the polls, both launched Bids for Boldness with showy makeovers meant to prove they would listen from now on to their inner voices.

With a few exceptions, their policy differences tend to be minor--a nuance here, an incremental step there, with Bradley generally wanting to go a bit further to the left than Gore and calling himself "bold" and his rival "timid" because of it. Both support abortion rights, free trade and gays in the military; on gun control, both would limit purchases to one a month and close the gun-show loophole by requiring background checks, though Bradley would also require that every gun be licensed and registered. ("Doesn't have a prayer of ever becoming law," sniffs Gore.) On campaign finance, both want to ban soft money, curb issue-advocacy attacks and provide free broadcast time, and at different points, both have advocated public financing of elections. On education, both want more teachers, Internet access and preschool and after-school programs, but Bradley calls for fully funding Head Start while Gore offers bite-size ideas like salary bumps to good teachers and discipline codes to be signed by parents and teachers. To battle child poverty, both want to raise the minimum wage, ease the marriage penalty on the working poor and let welfare mothers receive child support. But Bradley wants to beef up child-care block grants and index the minimum wage against inflation as well.

Health care is the most dramatic policy difference between them. Gore would build on existing programs to cover uninsured children, extending benefits to 88% of Americans. He claims his plan represents a "first step" toward universal coverage, but his 10-year budget contains no money for a second step. Bradley's plan promises near universal coverage right away and subsidizes the middle class as well, which is why it costs so much ($65 billion to $100 billion a year, depending on whose experts you believe). Gore calls the proposal "risky" because its payments might not be enough to let the poor buy health insurance. And he says it would leave no money to shore up Medicare, which is due to go bust in 15 years. Gore paints himself as the bold one, saying it's gutsier to pursue and protect many policies at once, in the manner of L.B.J. and J.F.K. Last week in New Hampshire, Bradley introduced an ad that wraps him in the mantle of risk. "People accuse me of offering big ideas that they say are risky," he tells the camera. "I say the real risk is...doing nothing." So who wins the boldness sweepstakes?

While still in the Senate, Bradley and Gore each began their quest for fire. As legislators (Bradley in the Senate, Gore in House and Senate), they had been known as painfully cautious types who avoided hot, divisive issues. Instead they picked large, arcane ones--tax reform and Third World debt for Bradley, missile defense for Gore--or, in Gore's case, safe and unassailable ones like better baby formula. Both were loners, standing apart from colleagues and making few friends. (Gore and Bradley weren't close when they served together in the Senate--they never sat on the same committee--but neither were they hostile. "I didn't have a hands-on feel for him," says Bradley.) To their staffs, both could seem detached and inscrutable, delivering icy glares and sarcastic rebuffs to aides who weren't smart or prepared enough. People worked for them for years without ever feeling they really knew them.

They were so much alike, in fact, that when they hit hard times--Gore's failed presidential bid in 1988, Bradley's near defeat in 1990--and then broke through to what they call life-changing epiphanies, they had the same kind of epiphany, and wrote about it in strikingly similar terms. Gore's came in 1989, a year after he'd been trounced in the Democratic primaries and soon after his son was struck by a car and almost killed. Albert III's accident, Gore wrote in Earth in the Balance, left him "very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously. The voice of caution whispers persuasively in the ear of every politician... But when caution breeds timidity, a good politician listens to other voices."

In 1990 the same light bulb flashed above Bradley's head. He had raised $12 million for his re-election bid and didn't take seriously the insurgent campaign of his challenger, a little known Republican named Christine Todd Whitman, who is now New Jersey's Governor. Whitman called Bradley a cautious Washington insider, and Bradley looked arrogant and out of touch with his home state, not grasping New Jerseyites' economic fears or the anger brewing over a $2.8 billion tax increase that his ally, then Governor Jim Florio, had pushed through the state house. Bradley spent $4.3 million on consultants that year, but they too missed what was happening. "By the time I sensed the dimensions of the electoral tide," he wrote in his 1996 memoir, Time Present, Time Past, "it was too late." Bradley won by just 3% and spent six months afterward taking stock. "It was essentially a rejection of me," he wrote, "for not appreciating how much people wanted candor, responsiveness, and a demonstrated caring about their plight ... It forced me to face up to what I needed to go deeper into my emotions and to speak from values and convictions in ways that I had avoided before."

In response to their epiphanies, both men self-consciously tried to reintroduce themselves as new and improved politicians--Bold Al and Bold Bill, noisily shedding the chains of caution and calculation, becoming gutsy leaders. But their sense of what it meant to be gutsy differed notably.

As Vice President, Gore became a voice for action inside the Administration. During the NAFTA battles of 1993, Bold Al insisted on debating Ross Perot against the wishes of White House staff, and he whupped the Texan at his own game. Together with Clinton adviser Dick Morris, Bold Al helped turn around the rudderless Clinton presidency after the midterm-election debacle of 1994, urging Clinton to embrace the balanced budget in June 1995, when most advisers were against it, pushing him to sign welfare reform and counseling him not to compromise with the Republicans but to let them shut down the government and take the blame. He urged Clinton to bomb Bosnia in 1995 and to recognize gays in the military, which he championed early, citing science and theology to argue for a complete lifting of the ban. "When he reaches a conclusion," says former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, "it is passionately argued and passionately advocated."

In the Senate, Bold Bill took a more ethereal approach. He was still attracted to arcane issues--he delved into California water reform, something no one thought he could solve, and did so by playing hardball politics, holding other bills hostage until he got his passed. But his boldness more often meant speaking out on controversial issues, notably race. He became a champion of affirmative action when other Democrats were abandoning the cause. He spoke poignantly of his own experiences as a white man in a sport dominated by blacks. And on the Senate floor in 1992, after the Los Angeles policemen who savaged motorist Rodney King were acquitted, he hammered the podium 56 times to recall the 56 blows to King's body. This was spontaneous and bold, but it was a boldness rooted more in talk than in action.

In his campaign for President, Bradley seems to be continuing that pattern. He stakes out positions slightly more progressive than Gore's, then trumpets them as a sign of his courage, as if he's still trying to persuade himself that he has changed since 1990. But Bradley has learned a crucial lesson since then. His message echoes the Whitman campaign that nearly ran him out of the Senate. Whitman called Bradley an entrenched, cautious Washington pol, and that's what Bradley calls Gore. From the start, Bradley stocked his team not with the kind of outside consultants who failed him in 1990 but with true believers--men and women with deep and long-standing allegiance to him.

Gore was less successful at applying the lessons of his 1988 loss. He railed against pollsters and consultants in Earth in the Balance, yet created a campaign organization that for the first six months of 1999 looked like a parody of everything he said was wrong with his 1988 campaign--hiring every mercenary spin doctor in sight, bringing in half a dozen pollsters. When Bradley surged in September, Gore learned those lessons anew, firing advisers, cutting salaries, making staff members share rooms on the road, promoting believers like campaign manager Donna Brazile. "We must be the change we wish to see in the world," he said, quoting Gandhi. Gore was trying to become more like Bradley. And in the heat of battle, Bradley's campaign has become more like Gore's. The believers who used to scoff at Gore's rapid-response tactics ("that's fighting the last war") are now firing off faxes and e-mails in a constant struggle to win the spin.

Like Gore, Bradley puts extraordinary emphasis on process--digesting 10 memos before the policy meeting, keeping his own views hidden while eliciting opinions from others. He has a quirky habit of sometimes responding effusively to ideas he doesn't like, perhaps to keep people guessing, or of tossing out wild ideas so aides can shoot them down. "He doesn't like yes-men," one of them says. "Sometimes I think he says things just to test our ability to disagree."

Bradley tries to be less obsessed with wonkery than he was in the past, but weaning himself isn't easy. He debates the fine points of policy and rewrites speeches himself, which takes time. Since he doesn't have the Vice President's policy apparatus, he solicits ideas from hundreds of outsiders; his staff boils down the best ones. But Bradley is the final arbiter of what's good enough, which is why he can create a bottleneck. In November, he was scheduled to give a major foreign-policy address at Tufts University, but as the date drew near, the campaign made less of it. And when Bradley finally delivered the thing, it turned out to be a gauzy disappointment, not what one would have expected from this first-rate foreign-policy mind. The latest retrenchment: probably no economic address before the New Hampshire primary. An adviser says it isn't worth taking the time away from shaking hands in Iowa.

One thing Bradley has always been is outwardly low key, and he's sticking to that. During a strategy session on Dec. 31 at the New Jersey apartment of campaign manager Gina Glantz, the inner circle--including Glantz, campaign chairman Doug Berman, communications director Anita Dunn and press secretary Eric Hauser--was munching bagels and finalizing the all-important January strategy. "We'd been working toward this for months," says someone who was in the room, "and now it was upon us, but there was no palpable sense of tension, no 'this is it' pep talk. It was all very Bill." Hauser walked through the "free media" strategy (which others say emphasizes local-television interviews in key districts). Bradley waved a hand and turned the conversation to the larger message question: How would the campaign knit together its basic themes for the final push? "He tells us where he wants to go and expects us to know how to get there," says an adviser. "He doesn't want to get down in the weeds."

Gore lives in those weeds. On health care, he and his staff struggled to develop a program throughout the summer, talking about the future of medicine, how the human-genome project would be completed in his first term, how it could transform the health-care landscape. On Aug. 13 they met at Gore's office. On Aug. 18 they met at his house. "I want to go as far as I possibly can," Gore told his staff. "These small steps are nice, but that's what we've been doing for the past 6 1/2 years." Aides laid 13 policy options before him in a commuter terminal at Boston's Logan International Airport--everything from sweeping, state-run health care to the most modest increments. Gore checked off five options. Then it suddenly occurred to him what he wanted to do: cover children and their families. "Children are the most important thing here," he said. "That's what people want."

For the Vice President, communing with the genome led to the child-health-insurance decision. Abstractions beget decisions about real people; facts show him the way. He loves to challenge his staff--"Where'd you get that fact? How do you know it's true?"--and that habit of mind has helped him laser in on Bradley's health-care plan, boring some serious holes in it. Even postepiphany, Gore still lives for what's verifiable, for numbers that add up and moving parts that lock into place.

Bradley's mid-life crisis led him to place new value on leaps of faith. He and Gore love to talk about making connections, but Gore does so in terms of wiring schools, taming sprawl and saving interdependent ecosystems. Bradley does so in terms of making people feel "less lonely, less isolated, less fearful." At last Saturday's debate, Gore answered a question about school violence by talking about programs; Bradley dwelled on "a new ethic of responsibility." Bradley calls on Americans to trust him; Gore calls on them to trust what he knows.

If there's one area in which Bradley really has been bold, it is in raising money--$27 million so far--and building an organization that can compete with Gore's on the ground. This crucial part of the Bradley operation is tucked upstairs in an annex building across a breezeway from the campaign's generic-looking headquarters in West Orange, N.J. In a small office, senior adviser Jacques DeGraff and his staff of two share space with wall maps marked up with congressional districts, delegate counts, primary and filing dates. DeGraff has been at work since June, recruiting delegates and filing ballot petitions while most others were worrying about the rat-a-tat. One recent task: making sure the slate of Ohio delegates was in place for the March primary.

The delegate slates aren't as crucial to victory as they once were, but they remain an important test. And it's a measure of Bradley's methodical nature that instead of focusing only on Iowa and New Hampshire, he's been building a nationwide army to fight Gore's Establishment troops. Bradley's army assembled full slates for all 20 districts in Illinois, all 21 in Pennsylvania, all 19 in Ohio, all eight in Maryland. And last week the campaign could announce it had delegates in all 31 New York districts. "The point is that Bill Bradley is about to translate into a juggernaut across the country," DeGraff says optimistically. "The contest is going to go on in every corner. We're not going to concede anything."

For any of that to really matter, however, Bradley first must do well in Iowa and New Hampshire. How well? In Iowa the expectations game is in full swing, with Bradley's people saying they are just trying to "beat the spread" (Gore's lead ranges from 13 to 21 points) and the Vice President's team insisting that Bradley is playing to win. What's certain is that Bradley is spending half of January in the state, outspending Gore 3 to 2 for TV time and pushing a risky strategy of drawing first-timers to the caucuses. That's not easy to do, because unlike in New Hampshire, where all a supporter has to do is spend a few seconds in a voting booth, in Iowa a caucusgoer must spend hours in someone's living room or a local school debating the merits of the candidates before the caucus vote. No Democratic insurgent has ever attracted significant numbers of first-timers to this process, but then, no insurgent has raised the kind of money or built the kind of organization Bradley has. "Can he excite people in Iowa the way he did in New Hampshire?" a Gore strategist wonders. The Gore man knows this much: "We've got to keep a couple of steps ahead."

So Gore's people are pushing precinct captains to make more phone calls, getting the unions revved up and bringing in planeloads of surrogates--Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle; Ted Kennedy in the heavily Catholic strongholds of Dubuque and Cedar Rapids--to rally the troops. If Bradley loses by just a few points in Iowa, he'll deserve to declare victory. But in New Hampshire, his victory has to be a real one. If he loses, the game's pretty much over. If he wins, he'll be looking bold as bold can be.

--With reporting by Tamala M. Edwards/New York and Karen Tumulty/Washington


Cover Date: January 17, 2000

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