In their two televised debates this weekend, the Democratic candidates both showed substantial improvement since their previous encounter in New Hampshire back in October. Al Gore has calmed down. While still hyperactive, he seemed much less desperate and hysterical than in the first debate. Bill Bradley was much more keyed up. He's no longer practicing passive resistance in the middle of a food fight.
You got a sense of how Bradley has recalibrated his approach in the first of the two events, a dull, 90-minute Nightline special that kept East Coast political junkies up until after 1 a.m. on Friday night. Bradley finally made an effort to seize the offensive on health care, asking Gore repeatedly, "Who would you leave out?" In response, Gore just kept repeating his ineffectual and inaccurate answer that his plan would leave no one out.
But it was during the much feistier encounter on Meet The Press this morning--the most contentious of the primary debates so far--that Bradley finally came into his own. He performed a sort of political jujitsu I have never really seen from him before, waiting for Gore to charge at him, and then turning the assault back on his attacker. Bradley used this technique to devastating effect, and he did so repeatedly through the hour-long broadcast.
Bradley's best moment came in response to a series of questions from Tim Russert about campaign finance reform. Gore offered Bradley a compact: that they both agree to a moratorium on 30-second ads and that they debate twice a week for the rest of the campaign. In a long exchange, Bradley grabbed this weapon out of Gore's hand and pistol-whipped him with it. Here are some highlights:
Gore: We don't have to wait for the Republican nominee to be picked. Bill, I'll make you this offer right now. If you will agree, I will stop running all television and radio commercials until this nomination is decided. That can get a lot of the money out of the presidential campaign and accomplish one of the best reforms. What about it?
Bradley: Sounds to me like you're having trouble raising money.
Gore: No, uh, as a matter of fact, I'm not ...
Bradley: I mean this is a ridiculous proposal. You know, the way you communicate with people is when you talk to them. I love to talk to them in town meetings--that's my favorite place. I've been doing that since January. But I also love to talk to them over television in their living rooms. ...
Gore: [turning to moderator] OK, here's the second part of the proposal. ... Let's debate twice a week from now until the nomination is decided and just go face-to-face about the issues and get rid of all these television and radio commercials. Why not do that?
Bradley: You know something? For 10 months that I was running for president you ignored me. You pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly I start to do better and you want to debate every day. It's ridiculous. We're having debates. ... The point is, Al, and I don't know if you get this, but a political campaign is not just a performance for people--which is what this is--but it is rather a dialogue...
Gore: Look, we could call this the Meet The Press agreement. We could have two debates every single week and get rid of all the television and radio commercials. I'm willing to do it right now if you'll shake on it [extends hand].
Bradley: Al, that's good. I like that hand [talks to the hand]. But the answer is noooo. I mean, why should I agree now? I'm not interested in tactics, Al. ... And that was a very interesting ploy on Meet the Press.
Gore: Look, I'm ready to agree right now.
Bradley: It was nothing but a ploy
Gore: Debates aren't ploys.
Bradley: That "Come here, shake my hand"--that's nothing but a ploy.
I've quoted this exchange at length because I think it represents a pivotal moment in the Democratic campaign. I'm not sure whether the effect fully comes across in written form, but on television Bradley made Gore look like a complete ass. (Slate's Chatterbox thinks it was the other way around; click here for his take. For more on the debate, see "Pundit Central.") Gore gave him an opening, by acting like a fast-talking used car salesman in a plaid blazer--"Bill, I'll make you this offer right now." Bradley responded by snipping off the huckster's polyester necktie, saying in effect, Do you have so little respect for me as to think I'd fall for something that stupid? While Gore waited with his hand dangling in midair, Bradley disdainfully critiqued and dismissed his whole approach to politics.
Bradley was equally effective in neutralizing Gore's assaults on other topics. When Russert asked Gore and Bradley what steps they would consider to ensure long-term solvency for Social Security and Medicare, both candidates tried to rule out the option of raising the retirement age. Gore then criticized Bradley for having voted in the Senate at one point to consider raising it. Bradley responded that the Clinton administration had itself discussed this option. Gore responded that he hadn't ever discussed it.
Bradley: You didn't discuss it in all your Social Security forums out there?
Gore: I certainly didn't.
Bradley: No one ever did, right? No one ever did? Give me a break.
Gore: Bill, I voted against raising the retirement age.
Bradley: Give me a break. But the point is that at the same time you criticize me for wanting discussion in the United States Senate on the variety of possibilities--the exact thing Tim is talking about--you and your administration are out doing the same thing.
What made Bradley's response on this point especially devastating was his accompanying hand gesture, undoubtedly unconscious but perilously close to the universal symbol for "pull it a little harder." Throughout the entire debate, in fact, Bradley's facial expressions and body language were those of a grown-up compelled to contend with an obnoxious punk. He would fight back if necessary--but only after making clear that doing so was beneath him. What Bradley showed, I think, is that he has found a way around the diabolical box that Gore has tried to put him in. He has figured out a way to defend himself without climbing into the mud-wrestling pit. While Gore rolled around in the muck, Bradley did no more than take off his jacket and roll up his sleeves.
At various points in the broadcast, you could hear Gore chuckling and sighing while Bradley was saying something he disagreed with. But these expressions of contempt have nothing of the force that Bradley's do. Gore's sneering gestures all seemed rehearsed and theatrical. Bradley, on the other hand, came across as straightforward and real, his authenticity underscored by Gore's plasticity.
In sum, Gore may want to reconsider his request for twice-weekly debates. A few more like this morning's and he'll be kaput.