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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 /23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

David Corn

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Same Cola, Different Bottles -- IT WAS COKE VS. PEPSI. Without much fizz. Last week in New Hampshire, Al Gore and Bill Bradley squared off in what turned out to be more a taste test than a debate. With similar policy priorities—both have plans to expand health care coverage; both advocate campaign finance reform; both are pushing modest antipoverty programs—the two were mostly marketing competing styles. Bradley was the earnest professor, Gore was the hard-charging politico. Do you want your president to be the less-than-exciting fellow by the chalkboard at the front of the room or the guy next to you waving his hand too eagerly because he thinks he knows the answer?

At the town hall meeting, both men played their parts well, yet there are reasons to be skeptical of each. After serving in the Campaign-Funds-R-Us Clinton administration, Gore is hardly credible as a champion for change on that front. Bradley keeps promoting his big, bold ideas—ending racial discord, vanquishing child poverty—but his 18 years in the Senate were a profile in cautious eclecticism. With so little clash on the fundamentals, the Democratic race is a personality contest—not how much, but what sort—and there is no clear leader.

There is, however, an interesting contrast in the candidates’ pitch. Bradley’s been telling voters: Come journey with me in this noble cause to improve our nation by cleaning up politics and providing a hand up to those being left behind in these supposedly flush times. He appeals to those yearning for idealism and offers them a method for acting on their high-minded desires. Meanwhile, Gore gets personal and asks—practically begs—Democrats for something concrete: their votes. Give that to me, he says, and I’ll do right by you, I’ll go to the mat for you, I’ll stand and fight for you.

It’s missionary against ward leader. How will this play? You’ll get no predictions out of me. Voters probably want some of both, though with these two Democrats, that’s not possible. In the Senate, Bradley wasn’t known for being a can-do legislator who would collaborate and plot with other Democrats to make things happen. He tended to his own interests, especially tax reform, Third World debt, opposing corporate subsidies that cause environmental damage. Gore, for his part, has never been regarded as one who can inspire. He projects...well, what? He’s a workaday pol. Several years ago he presided over a White House conference on global warming—a subject he knows inside out and seems to care about—and his remarks, before an audience of enviros and climatologists, were flat. He couldn’t even move those who shared his passion.

So we’ve got one candidate crying out, “Join me,” and the other declaring, “Help me to help you.” On the Democratic side, this is a campaign of psychology more than policy.

The Republican gabfest in the first-primary state was less interesting, since lead dog George W. Bush wasn’t there to bark. I wonder if the GOP voters in New Hampshire were frustrated by what seemed to be a record-high number of nonanswers from those who were there. Sen. Orrin Hatch was asked if he’d be willing to provide uninsured Americans the same health coverage he receives as a member of Congress, and he rattled off some reply about prescription-drug legislation and a children’s health care measure. Sen. John McCain was asked how the criminalization of medicinal marijuana could be justified when alcohol—as easily abused as pot—is legal. He said he’d like to duck the question—and then did.

When a citizen asked robot/publisher Steve Forbes what he’d do to make corporations pay the full cost of handling the pollution they generate (as if Forbes ever would), he complained that not every Superfund toxic waste site has been cleaned up by the federal government.

The closing minutes of this sound-off were its most impressive. Each of the five wannabes was given 20 seconds for a summation, in which each encapsulated his campaign. Forbes claimed he was for “freedom”: freedom from taxes; freedom for fetuses (but not freedom for women to make their own choices regarding abortion). And freedom to choose your own doctor.

(Will he hand out vouchers so you can see that Park Ave. specialist written up in New York?) Religious right activist Gary Bauer bemoaned the “virtue deficit” in public life. Radio blabber, crazy man and champion gesticulator Alan Keyes pronounced he would remedy the “moral crisis”—without defining the crisis. McCain said he was the candidate of “reform”—reforming the campaign finance system, reforming the military.

(To his credit, earlier he bashed Congress for loading the Pentagon budget with billions of dollars for unnecessary weapons systems. He didn’t have the guts, though, to name those Republican legislators, like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who’ve engineered these boondoggles to benefit their home states.) And Orrin Hatch snorted that he wanted to be president because he has “more experience” than all the other guys. Freedom, virtue, morality, reform, experience—those aren’t bad choices, and how convenient that each candidate boiled himself down into one word. What would Bush have offered? Probably “compassionate conservatism,” although a more honest reply would be, “Money, money, money.” It’s too bad this GOP free-for-all is being drowned out by the ringing cash register of the Bush campaign. In analyzing the GOP showdown, you don’t need a shrink to sort it out, you need an accountant.

Still, there’s a chance McCain, who at times seemed a little uncomfortable during the debate, will give Bush a run for his money.

There’s been much talk in political circles of how the Bradley-Gore contest resembles the 1984 Democratic race, when upstart Sen. Gary Hart nearly toppled Vice President Walter Mondale, the party establishment’s favorite. (Hart’s big problem was that his lean bank account couldn’t support a national effort after he upset Mondale in New Hampshire. Bradley, who’s been fundraising a storm on Wall Street, will not have that difficulty.) McCain is another quirky senator challenging his party’s bigfoot.

New Hampshire’s been fertile ground for such endeavors. And Bush, who has nowhere to go but down, has been falling in the polls there, while McCain has been rising. The gap is still wide, and Republican voters in the state are not known to be as contrarian as their Democratic neighbors. Remember, though, that they chose Pat Buchanan over Bob Dole in 1996.

It would be fitting if the only Republican who crusades for campaign finance reform (forget for the moment that he, too, raises bundles from the lobbyists and corporations that have business before the committee he chairs) is the one to knock off the $100-million-man.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press. His latest book is Deep Background.

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