Gore, Bradley camps swap accusations on taxes

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 12/07/99

ASHINGTON - In an escalating feud between the two Democratic presidential candidates, Bill Bradley rebutted allegations yesterday that he had called for a tax increase to help pay for his health care plan, and he accused Vice President Al Gore of ''falsely'' distorting the record.

''I am not proposing a tax increase,'' Bradley said, seeking to clarify remarks he made last Thursday. ''I specifically said I was not proposing a tax increase and the vice president knows it.''

But the fight is over more than taxes. After Bradley made significant political headway by proposing a program for near-universal health insurance, Gore has defended his less-sweeping proposal as more fiscally realistic. By seizing on the cost of Bradley's plan, Gore hopes to shift the debate away from health care details and onto the possibility that Bradley may have to raise taxes to pay for his more expansive initiative.

The tax issue, however, cuts both ways. While the two candidates threw barbs at each other yesterday, a review of the record shows that both of them have left open the possibility of raising taxes.

Bradley has said he might raise taxes to pay for his health care plan. Gore, meanwhile, has said he might raise the cigarette tax. In addition, Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, leaving some flexibility in Gore's position, said yesterday that the vice president ''has ruled out tax increases barring a drastic change in the economy.''

Lehane did not elaborate, but given the recent history of political rhetoric around tax increases, the definition ''drastic change'' is open to wide interpretation. After all, former President Bush famously issued his ''Read My Lips - No New Taxes'' promise, but he broke the vow in a move that played a role in his defeat in the 1992 campaign.

Then, President Clinton and Vice President Gore in their 1992 campaign vowed to cut middle-class taxes but wound up increasing tax rates in the 1993 deficit reduction deal. (Bradley also voted for that tax increase.) In addition, Gore initially backed tax increases on certain energy products as a way to cut pollution, but he said in a recent interview that he now opposes such action.

Bradley said yesterday that Gore's history on taxes shows he is being disingenuous when accusing Bradley of backing a tax hike.

''Now, in falsely asserting I want to raise taxes, Al Gore is once again turning an honest discussion about a future no one can predict into a proposal I never made,'' Bradley said.

Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser yesterday did not dispute that Bradley had left open the possibility of a tax boost, but said Gore has done the same thing. ''The only difference'' between Bradley and Gore is that ''Bradley is being honest about it.''

Moreover, Hauser said, Gore has made dozens of proposals without saying how they will be financed. The Bradley campaign yesterday issued a report called ''Promises Without Pricetags,'' which listed 63 Gore initiatives for which the vice president purportedly has not provided financing information. The initiatives ranged from Gore's education program to his plan to expand the number of drug courts.

The danger for both Democrats is that they risk repeating the fate of former vice president Walter F. Mondale, whose pledge to raise taxes doomed his presidential bid in 1984. So, not wanting to issue a Bush-like ''Read My Lips'' vow or to declare in the Mondale fashion a desire to raise taxes, Gore and Bradley walked carefully yesterday around the issue.

The fight erupted when Gore said in a Washington Post interview that ''I'm talking about tax cuts, Senator Bradley is talking about tax increases.'' Gore based his comment on Bradley's assertion last week that he would decide in the future whether he needed to raise taxes to help pay for his plan to provide health care insurance for 95 percent of Americans.

This is the Bradley comment in a separate Post interview that prompted the controversy:

''You have to see where your revenues were and then make your decision then as to whether, if you didn't have enough, what you were going to do: cutting spending or increasing taxes,'' Bradley said. Asked whether that meant he would raise taxes, Bradley responded: ''I'd make a judgment at that time. Not today.''

Yesterday, Bradley said it was unfair to interpret that comment as a call for tax increases.

''Nobody can predict the future of a trillion dollar economy,'' Bradley said. ''That's why the vice president also has not ruled out the possible need for a tax increase. He and I have the same position on future taxes.''

Just a few weeks ago, Bradley said he was determined to ignore attacks from Gore, insisting he wouldn't be baited by what he called the ''politics of the dartboard.'' Bradley said in a Boston Globe interview that he knew his health care plan would be attacked as soon as he released the details, likening it to throwing ''raw meat into a cage of wolves.''

But Bradley's resolve has waned as Gore's attacks have increased.

''When distortions become so clear cut, we are certainly going to point them out, '' Hauser said.