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HE debates against Bill Bradley showed how well Gore had learned his lessons. He practiced before each debate -- though not for as long or as formally as at the 1996 Debate Camp.
As he had done when preparing for Ross Perot, Gore worked on restoring his elbows-out skills. The stultifying effects of a second term of isolation were so profound that they seemed to threaten his ability to mount a presidential campaign at all. "This is a guy who did hundreds of town meetings when he was a congressman and senator, and was terrific at it," Robert Shrum, who has played a major role in Gore's debate and speech strategy this year, says. "Then all of a sudden that stopped, and everything about his life was in a framework. He had to break out of that framework or he would have lost the nomination." Thus the flurry of rearrangements and fresh starts for the Gore campaign at the end of last year and the beginning of this year: moving the headquarters from Washington to Nashville ("from K Street to ... Kmart," as Gore so winningly put it); edging out Bob Squier as the campaign's dominant figure and replacing him with Carter Eskew; the alpha-male advice from the feminist writer Naomi Wolf; the revamped wardrobe and more aggressive speaking style.
Gore worked hard to identify his opponent's essential weakness, so that he could exploit it. Bradley's, as Gore and his advisers saw it, was his proposal for changes in government health-insurance plans. And Gore analyzed or intuited what behavior on his part would most annoy Bradley. The result was a devastating win.
As when he faced Jack Kemp, Gore's team was surprised by how feeble the resistance was. "We had telegraphed from the day Bradley first announced his health plan that the weakness would be the impact on Medicaid," Elaine Kamarck says. "He had three months to explain how he was going to repair and improve Medicare benefits, but he never did it. We realized after a while that we could keep hitting him the same way and he would never come back." So Gore hit, again and again, with the charge that Bradley was going to eliminate the Medicaid program and replace it with a voucher worth $150 a month, which obviously couldn't buy private coverage with benefits comparable to Medicaid's. The charge was misleading at best. Under Bradley's plan, people who received Medicaid would get vouchers to buy their own insurance coverage. This was part of a broader effort to expand coverage to people who now lack Medicaid, private insurance, or any health insurance at all. The $150 figure was the result of a complicated calculation, and it applied to people without dependents -- not families, who might get two or three times as much. More important, Bradley's argument rested on replacing Medicaid with a voucher program, which would create a new market for health-insurance coverage and would in turn lead private insurers to offer new forms of low-cost coverage. (This is like the contention that a school-voucher program, by creating a new market for education, would lead to the creation of new kinds of schools.) Agree or disagree with Bradley's plan, his $150 estimate was based on "dynamic" rather than "static" assumptions. He did not contemplate sending today's average poor person out onto the street with $150 in hand -- but that is just about what Gore accused him of wanting to do.
Through the campaign Gore's team kept waiting for Bradley to launch a counterattack making clear that his plan would give more than $150 to many families, that a new market would create new forms of coverage -- and besides, that Gore's slower approach would leave some people totally uncovered. The Gore team was ready with retorts of its own.
But the replies never came. Eric Hauser, who was Bradley's press secretary during the campaign, says, "What we should have done is make clear that the Vice President was making it all up, and that you can't have a debate with someone who is willing to make up the facts. He knows just how to come up with something that has the ring of truth to it even though it's not actually true."
An exchange at the debate last February at the Apollo Theater, in Harlem, illustrated how much better Gore understood the realities of debate. He had again gone after Bradley on the $150 issue -- this time adding a racial element. Bradley's proposal would, by Gore's reckoning, hurt people now on Medicaid, who were disproportionately black and Latino; Bradley was thus proposing an anti-minority plan. Worse still, Bradley's plan would reduce some coverage for AIDS, and since AIDS victims were disproportionately black and Latino ...
Bradley tried to explain what he really meant but floundered with these half-coherent words: "We've talked a lot about my health-care proposal in this campaign. In its terms, [AIDS is] a disability, a disability under Medicaid. It saves the same amount of money. It's the same services. It's the same benefits. The only difference is that now if you have HIV, you can qualify for insurance, and if you're in the neighborhood, you get ... a community health benefit. That's the only difference. And tonight I pledge that any health-care bill that I would sign would have every Medicaid patient a better health plan than Medicaid is today."
Except for the pledge in the last sentence, this would be incomprehensible to most listeners. Gore immediately delivered the perfect retort: "Well, that's not a plan, that's a magic wand, and it doesn't work that way. [Lusty cheers from the crowd.] The problem that people with AIDS and cancer and muscular dystrophy and other diseases have in the private health-insurance market is that the insurance companies don't want to take them. They want to get rid of them. You give them a hundred-and-fifty-dollar-a-month voucher, they can't buy it."
Gore's arguments about the racial impact of this plan were calculated to infuriate Bradley, whose greatest point of vanity concerned his belief that he, because of his NBA past, was especially sensitive -- even noble -- on all issues of race. Gore knew he could get deep under Bradley's skin with even one dig suggesting that he was just another uncaring white man.
The debate at the Apollo was full of such digs -- for instance, an insinuation that Bradley was calling the Congressional Black Caucus stupid: "You know what? [Exaggeratedly folksy manner.] In my experience, the [Congressional] Black Caucus is pretty savvy. They know a lot more than you think they know.... Congressional Black Caucus is not out there being led around, you know. They know what the score is. And they also know that their brothers and sisters in New Jersey said you were never for them walking the walk, just talking the talk."
Even before the Apollo event Bradley had confessed how much this needling was getting to him. In a debate in January, in New Hampshire, Peter Jennings had asked each candidate whether the other had misrepresented his views at any time. Gore finally said no. Bradley, clearly stewing, said yes, of course: "The one that was most particularly offensive to me was when he said in this campaign that I was going to hurt African-Americans, Latinos, with the health-care program that I have offered.... To say to me, who's had the deep commitment to the issue of racial unity in this country since I started in politics, that I would go out and hurt African-Americans and Latinos consciously as a part of a policy Ithink really offended me."
Gore [blandly]: "Harry Truman said in 1948, I'm not giving him hell, I'm just telling the truth and he thinks it's hell."
ASKED Roy Neel, who has known and worked with Al Gore for so many years, what he thought Gore's strategy would be for debates with George W. Bush. "I think he has to be brutal on the issues where the differences between the two are crystal clear," Neel said, meaning gun control, Social Security and Medicare, and other classic Democrat-versus-Republican issues. "He's got to do it with the right touch. But he can't miss the opportunity to be brutal on those basic issues. If Bush has an Achilles' heel, it's that he doesn't know much about international affairs. While Gore doesn't know everything, he is extremely confident in those areas. So he's got to really drive the knife in on foreign affairs, national security, plus those core Democratic issues." Gore shouldn't store up attack lines to unleash no matter what the question, Neal said: "He should look for Bush to give him an opening, and be so well prepared that when that opening arises, he goes right in for the kill." This kind of assault would be the natural culmination of Gore's evolution as a debater.
Neel said he hoped for something else, too. "I don't have any fears about his performance in a Bush debate. He has a first-rate group working with him. They will be very disciplined and will have everything thought out. But what I would like to see is for people to be able to look at him and -- without hearing anything specifically that he's saying -- think, 'You know, I like that guy. That guy makes me feel comfortable.'"
I kept a straight face as Neel said this, but he had identified the major liability of Gore's mature style. I can imagine that many people would respect Gore, or fear him, based on the way he has learned to destroy opponents. It is hard for me to imagine anyone's watching his technically strongest performances -- against Gephardt, Dukakis, Perot, Kemp, Bradley -- and thinking, You know, I like that guy.
I feel especially qualified to talk about the emotional impact of Gore's rhetorical style because of a recent concentrated exposure to it. In April, I spent several days in Nashville, at the Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University, viewing dozens of hours of Gore's speeches, press conferences, and debates in chronological order from 1987 into this year. The image that kept coming to mind was the physical transformation in the Michael Corleone character as played by Al Pacino through the three movies of the Godfather, saga: in the beginning a clear-eyed young idealist; in the end a heavy-lidded, stone-faced man of respect who has outgrown illusions and faced up to the responsibility of doing what is necessary. (This was before I saw Jake Tapper's fantasy, in Salon, of Al "Gore-leone" avenging slights against his father.) "One of the reasons he's such a good debater is that none of this is personalized," Robert Shrum says of Gore. "The disagreements aren't personal, so they don't distort the way he thinks." It's just business.
What does Gore's success as a debater suggest about the traits he might display in office? Much of the evidence is hopeful. Ours is a culture that admires unforced natural talent -- Bill Clinton rather than Bob Dole, John McEnroe rather than Ivan Lendl -- but feels reassured by the idea of steady, dutiful effort from those in prominent positions. Without exception, the several dozen Gore associates I spoke with told me that effort -- or some synonym, such as "discipline," "focus," "preparation" -- was Gore's most striking trait. One called me back a few hours after our interview to say, "I can't emphasize it enough: this is a man capable of total focus on the job at hand." Another, asked to compare Gore's intelligence with his willingness to work, said, "For him, it would be a meaningless distinction. His intelligence is his willingness to work." This, of course, is the contrast Gore will try hardest to draw with George W. Bush, whose greatest appeal is his affability and whose weakness is his apparent distaste for dull, drawn-out work.
A President's success depends not just on his own efforts but also on his ability to assess the people who will advise him and to use them in an effective way. Here, too, Gore's record as a debater is reassuring. His group of formal assistants and informal advisers has been stable over the years, with relatively few huffy defections or internal wars. In interviews these people seem loyal without being robotic. Gore clearly has figured out how to delegate and how to rely on them without feeling that his primacy is threatened. It is impossible to quantify how much Gore's current attack-dog approach reflects his intrinsic tendencies and how much is the result of shrewd counseling and coaching. Surely both are important. The telling point is that Gore has found a way to work with his advisers toward an effective approach. In his public presentations Gore has done worst when caught by surprise -- just like most people except true naturals. (Remember that Bill Clinton ad-libbed his way through the opening section of an address to a joint session of Congress when the wrong speech showed up on the TelePrompTer. If Gore had been at the lectern, an assistant says, "that would have been a very short speech.") A President is called on for snap reactions and decisions less often than a presidential candidate is. A President usually has time to get advice and consider the options -- the sort of deliberate procedure at which Gore has excelled. Gore's willingness to fight with whatever tools are necessary would be easier to stomach in a President than in a candidate. His excesses have all come in the pursuit of office, not in the exercise of official powers. He has given no sign whatever of persecuting his opponents in a Nixonlike way. He dismantles them only when they stand between him and a victory he desires. It's like a military operation.
That's the good side. There's a bad side, too. Gore is manifestly willing to lie for political convenience. Bill Turque, in his authoritative biography Inventing Al Gore (2000), and the reporters Walter V. Robinson and Michael Crowley, of The Boston Globe, have detailed Gore's habit of hanging on to claims that can easily be disproved. The Globe reporters wrote this past April, "Starting as a junior congressman and continuing through this year's primaries, Gore has regularly promoted himself, and skewered his opponents, with embroidered, misleading, and occasionally false statements to a degree that even some of his allies concede is rare for a politician of his stature." To take just one example of needless small-scale distortion: during his first run for the presidency, in 1988, he said, "My wife and four children and I live on an active farm today outside of Carthage, Tennessee." At the time, the children were enrolled in schools near Washington, D.C. Gore must have known that he was distorting Michael Dukakis's views about foreign policy and Bill Bradley's about race. He and his advisers show no squeamishness about having done so; it was up to the other side to fight back. His relentlessness is both impressive and unattractive. This may account for the contradictory view expressed in opinion polls: significant positive rankings because of Gore's competence and impact, but also significant negatives because of his crudely transparent attacks.
There is very little lightness, modesty, or self-awareness (as opposed to New Age self-inquiry) in the persona Gore now presents. His least poised moment in this year's debates came at the Apollo Theater, when Tamala Edwards, of Time magazine, pointed out that although Gore opposed school vouchers, he and his children had all gone to private schools. "Is there not a public or charter school in D.C. good enough for your child?" she asked. "And if not, why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?"
Gore, furious, replied, "All of my children -- you know, you can leave them out of this if you want to -- but all of my children have gone to both public schools and private schools. The reason I have opposed vouchers is ..." This was Gore at his most efficient -- moving on to the policy point and brushing aside the personal challenge. Afterward his advisers told me, in all seriousness, that what Gore objected to was "bringing his family into politics." This about the man who used his son's critical injury as the centerpiece of his convention speech in 1992, and used his sister's death in the same manner four years later.
Having studied Al Gore's record in some detail, I now respect his capacities more and like him less. Since mid-century the Democrats have liked to think that they will have natural, glorious winners (John Kennedy is the model) or losers who go down fighting the good, high-minded fight -- a lineage that runs from Adlai Stevenson through Jimmy Carter in his re-election bid to Walter Mondale to Bill Bradley. Bill Clinton's achievement -- becoming the first Democratic President in sixty years to win two terms -- has reminded the party how high the price of victory can be: the constant need to compromise, the willingness to endure humiliations that would break normal people. But with his natural dazzle, Clinton could make most of it look like fun. Gore can provide none of that illusion. His appeal starts and ends with grinding out a win the hard way.
Illustrations by Patrick Oliphant.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.