Democratic debaters getting testy

Bradley, Gore clash on health coverage, campaign finance

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 12/20/1999

ASHINGTON - Former senator Bill Bradley, seated just a foot away from Vice President Al Gore, looked at Gore's outstretched hand and refused to shake it.

In the most heated debate of the Democratic presidential campaign, Gore and Bradley clashed yesterday over health care and campaign finance on NBC's ''Meet the Press.'' When Gore challenged Bradley to end television ads, Bradley refused to shake hands on the deal, dismissing it as a ''ploy.''

''Sounds to me like you're having trouble raising money,'' Bradley said, of the suggestion to replace radio and television ads with a series of debates.

''No, as a matter of fact, I'm not,'' Gore replied.

''I mean, this is a ridiculous proposal,'' Bradley said.

The discussion didn't end there. ''You know something -'' Bradley told Gore, ''for 10 months that I was running for president, you ignored me. You pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly I started to do better, and you want to debate every day.''

Gore apparently made the offer partly to try to undercut Bradley's image as the reformer in the race. Bradley last Thursday shook hands with a Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, on a proposal to stop accepting unregulated ''soft money'' contributions to the respective parties if both men become the nominees.

The issue of advertising initially put Bradley on the defensive, as he apologized for what he called the unauthorized distributions of fliers that accused Gore of ''uncontrollable lying'' about Bradley's health care plan. Still, Bradley complained that Gore has run unfair ads, especially about Bradley's health care plan. When Bradley asked Gore to apologize for ads, Gore refused.

Health care dominated much of the debate. Bradley said his program would directly cover 30 million out of 44 million Americans without health insurance, with the remainder eligible for tax breaks, meaning, Bradley said, that his program provides ''access for everyone.''

''We'd leave no one out,'' Bradley said. Turning to Gore, he said: ''And I think the question is who would you leave out?''

The program's host, Tim Russert, then interjected to say that Gore's plan would directly cover only 12 million uninsured Americans, drawing the lines of the debate that is a daily controversy on the campaign trail.

''Both Bill and I have the same goal, to get to universal health insurance,'' said Gore, who has proposed first providing coverage to all children. ''He just told you that his plan leaves out some 14 million and offers them the chance to deduct health care insurance premiums from their income taxes, but most of the people who don't have health care today don't have premiums to deduct, so they're left out. I think we have to get to universal health insurance, and I think the way to do it is to get there step by step.''

As they have in the past, the two candidates disagreed about the impact of Bradley's proposal to eliminate Medicaid as part of his health care overhaul. Gore said that Bradley intends to replace the current Medicaid setup by giving people '' little $150-a-month vouchers.''

''That's wrong. That's not correct,'' Bradley said.

Then, when Russert said that the Clinton-Gore administration proposed a similar plan to replace Medicaid, Gore and Bradley got into an argument marked mostly by interruptions.

GORE: No. What he replaces ...

BRADLEY: Absolutely.

GORE: ... replaces it with ...

BRADLEY: Wrong. That's not right.

GORE: What he proposes to replace it with ...

BRADLEY: That's not correct.

GORE: ... are vouchers that are limited to $150 a month.


Bradley eventually explained that the vouchers would average $150 and that his plan would cover many people who have neither health insurance or Medicaid. Gore said Bradley's plan would be so costly it would be impractical.

The two battled in similar fashion over Social Security, as Russert attempted again and again to get both candidates to explain how they would shore up Social Security without further raising the retirement age. Both candidates have said they oppose raising the retirement age, but Gore repeatedly criticized Bradley for once considering raising the age at which retirement benefits are available.

When Russert asked whether Gore would ever consider raising the retirement age, Gore at first said he wouldn't in the ''foreseeable future.'' But Gore then made his position absolute. ''I'll say ever, sure.''

But when asked by Russert what ''tough choices'' they would make about Social Security, both candidates were vague.

Bradley said he would convene ''a bipartisan approach to this problem to consider all the possibilities,'' while once again excluding the retirement age.

Said Gore: ''I will guarantee that in a Gore presidency, you will have the leadership to solve whatever problem confronts Social Security and Medicare without raising the retirement age.''

The two men also clashed over what many Democrats consider the top campaign issue, education. Gore noted that Bradley voted for experimental school voucher programs, which supply public money to help parents send their children to private schools. Gore said he never voted for the programs because they would drain money from public schools.

''I don't think that anyone should question my commitment to public education,'' Bradley said. ''I also don't think they should question what I've proposed. I believe that there should be a strong federal commitment to education.''

Russert kept pounding away on the voucher issue, asserting that many non-Catholic parents are sending their children to Catholic schools because they believe public schools are not good enough. ''Why not give them a couple hundred bucks to offset the burden of tuition?'' Russert asked.

''Well, first of all,'' Gore said, ''the flaw with the voucher theory is that the vast majority of those who receive a tiny little down payment on the tuition cannot afford the rest of it, and when you drain that money out of the public school system, it kicks off a downward spiral.''

Gore tried, as he has frequently, to walk a fine line when asked about President Clinton's legacy. Russert set up the issue by asking Gore to name the greatest presidents, to which Gore gave examples ranging from George Washington to John F. Kennedy. Then Russert, noting that Gore had called Clinton one of the greatest presidents, asked whether he would put Clinton in the company of Washington and others. ''No, of course not,'' Gore said.

The format of the debate clearly helped the sparks fly. The first Democratic debate, on the campus of Dartmouth College, featured audience questions that let the candidates ruminate and not challenge each other. The second debate, a taping of ABC-TV's ''Nightline'' that aired last Friday night, was so languid that host Ted Koppel at one point said that the candidates had answered only a few questions during the first hour of the 90-minute show. Yesterday's hourlong debate, by contrast, was aggressively overseen by Russert, who didn't mind interrupting the candidates to keep the questions coming. Moreover, the placement of the two candidates at the same table created more visual interaction.

Within minutes of the debate's conclusion, the campaign staffs went into e-mail overdrive, telling reporters about the supposed failures of the opposing candidate during the television show.

''Bradley cites Lincoln, but refuses to debate,'' the Gore e-mail said, referring to Bradley's praise of Lincoln.

''Al Gore resorted to gimmickry out of a lack of confidence in his own positive vision,'' the Bradley campaign retorted.

Despite the harsh tone, Gore said that he didn't consider any of his criticisms of Bradley to be personal. The vice president pledged that he would never run a ''personal negative ad'' during the campaign.