Bradley Vs. Gore: Now It's A Race

The former senator's gutsy agenda puts the Veep on the defensive

Any lingering thoughts that Bill Bradley is just Al Gore with a basketball were dispelled on Sept. 28. In a major speech, Bradley laid out an ambitious proposal to provide health care to almost all Americans, including mandatory coverage for children. The sheer audacity of the plan--and its $65 billion-a-year price tag--has some Democratic critics labeling him an unrealistic opportunist and Republicans dismissing him as a dreamy-eyed liberal.

But Bradley's health-care gambit sure got Gore's attention. The next day, Gore acknowledged that he faces a "tough" primary and challenged Bradley to a series of debates. The Veep also announced that his faltering, inside-the-Beltway campaign would relocate headquarters from Washington to Nashville.

Suddenly, the Democrats are in a horse race. With his health plan, an earlier campaign-finance proposal, and ideas on work/family issues and child poverty soon to come, Bradley is delivering on his "Big Promises" agenda. Gore, by pleading for "a bunch" of debates, usually a ploy of underdogs, is elevating his opponent to major-candidate status.

BROAD APPEAL. More important, Bradley is making inroads outside the Democratic base: among moderates and independents, male baby boomers, and young voters. So why is he shifting left on issues ranging from health care to gay rights? Answer: Bradley is gambling that he can assemble an army of discontented liberals to pry the nomination away from Gore. Once he has that prize in hand, he can worry about mending fences with independents and moderate Republicans.

Right now, the Democratic insurgent is riding a wave of favorable publicity. A Sept. 21-23 CNN/Time poll showed Bradley pulling ahead in New Hampshire. And in some national polls, he is faring better than Gore against Republican front-runner George W. Bush. "Many Democrats think Gore is unelectable," says independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett.

Like Ronald Reagan in his successful 1980 campaign, Bradley is portraying himself as a bold leader of strong moral character whom voters can trust even if they don't always see eye-to-eye with him. Indeed, Bradley bought newspaper ads in Iowa and New Hampshire on Sept. 26 that declared: "Sometimes you'll agree with me and sometimes you won't. But at least you'll know exactly where I stand...."

Even if Bradley is not as charming a speaker as Reagan, he exudes a comfort with himself--an anti-charisma--that apparently appeals to voters weary of packaged pols. "This is the year of the unslick candidate, so his lack of charm and his lack of finesse is a real selling point," says Democratic consultant Jennifer Laszlo. "Reagan was `wrong' on all of the issues, but he won because people liked him." Even the co-chair of GOP Senator John McCain's campaign, former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, concedes: "You may not agree with [Bradley], but you can trust him."

That image will make it tough for Gore backers to successfully portray Dollar Bill as a cynical opportunist who is reversing many of his past positions to win over liberal primary voters. But in fact, Bradley has headed left.

In Iowa, he cozied up to corn growers by endorsing ethanol subsidies, even though he opposed such tax breaks in the past. While Senator Bradley voted several times for experimental school-voucher programs, candidate Bradley opposes all voucher proposals--as do the powerful teachers' unions. And to appeal to Teamsters, free-trader Bradley now wants to keep Mexican truckers from entering the U.S.--at least for the near future.

Bradley's most dramatic tack left, though, is on health care. Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton's unpopular 1994 proposal, Bradley's would not replace the existing private health-insurance system. Instead, he would require parents to purchase insurance coverage for their kids, with the government subsidizing low-income households. Families could either include children in employer-sponsored plans or one offered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, which covers all government workers. Adults also could opt into the FEHBP. Insurance premiums would be tax-deductible. And the elderly would get free prescription drugs under Medicare for chronic illnesses. In essence, Bradley proposes to use the bulk of the non-Social Security surplus for health care rather than tax cuts.

Business reaction to Bradley-care was mostly favorable. The tax-credit approach is "well thought-out and sensible," says R. Bruce Josten, senior vice-president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Health Insurance Association of America President Chip Kahn praises the overall plan but worries that it "would lead to expensive patient-protection mandates" by Washington.

Certainly, Bradley's health plan has faults. Critics immediately pounced on what they see as low-ball cost estimates. Tax deductions for health premiums would come to $5 billion in the Bradley plan; similar breaks were pegged at $8.5 billion in the just-vetoed GOP tax-cut bill. While Bradley says he can provide the elderly with a prescription drug benefit under Medicare for just $10 billion, a similar proposal by President Clinton would cost twice that. And Bradley is silent on how he would stop employers from dropping corporate health plans and forcing employees to buy government-subsidized policies.

Still, it may be tougher than Republicans think to peg Bradley as outside the moderate mainstream. He worked closely with Reaganites on the 1986 tax-reform battle and has won friends in Corporate America by championing free trade, fiscal discipline, and tax reform.

Thus far, Bradley's deepest appeal is among independents. He scores particularly well with male boomers who recall his exploits on the basketball court. "I call them the NBA Dads," says independent pollster John Zogby. "He has crossover appeal that brings guys back into the Democratic fold."

Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan laughed off criticism that he was a dangerous extremist with a jocular "there you go again." Bill Bradley is charging ahead now, but like Reagan, he must disarm the skeptics. That will be trickier as they realize that Big Promises may also mean more Big Government.