A couple of months ago, I described Al Gore's attempt to create a lose-lose situation for Bill Bradley. Through the use of relentless, often unfair attacks, Gore and his staff thought they could trap Bradley between a rock and hard place. If Bradley remained on the high road, emphasizing his positive message and ignoring the vice president's hectoring, the unanswered criticism would damage him. But if, on the other hand, Bradley responded to Gore in kind, he would be descending to his opponent's level, dispelling his aura of moral superiority in the process.
Gore's tactic has worked perfectly. During the past several months, Bradley has remained Buddha-like on his mountaintop, dismissing Gore's attacks as politics-as-usual, but not criticizing his opponent directly or even answering most of his complaints. The result has been ebbing momentum for the challenger. Bradley has suffered from both Gore's specific charges--such as the distortion that he opposed flood relief for Iowa farmers--and from the general sense that he is a Michael Dukakis- or Paul Tsongas-type of political victim. As if to underscore the unhelpful comparison with Tsongas, the Bradley campaign has been running 30-second TV ads in which Niki Tsongas, Paul's widow, says that Bradley is falling prey to the kind of smear that undermined her husband in 1992.
So with Plan A plainly failing, Bradley has finally switched at to Plan B. His own revised strategy was on view in last night's WMUR/CNN debate, in which Bradley pointedly went after Gore in a way he has not done previously. Bradley repeatedly called Gore a liar (though he only used the actual l-word after the debate), sneakily compared him to Richard Nixon and Rudy Giuliani, blasted him for pandering to every special interest group under the sun, and wondered how Gore would muster enough public credibility to serve as president if elected. "And my question to you is, why should we believe you that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?" Bradley asked, in one of many direct confrontations. He also accused Gore of having once opposed abortion, of distorting Bradley's health-care plan, and of being too cozy with corporate lobbyists and special interests.
After the debate, Bradley congratulated himself for finally taking the gloves off. "I thought I was doing pretty well counter-punching tonight, quite frankly," he told Larry King, in a post-game appearance. Today at a rally in Manchester, Bradley described his performance as a "fresh start" to his campaign. "Last night I decided I'd had it," he declared. "We're going to call my opponent on what he's been doing."
I expect that Bradley's satisfaction will be short-lived. His newfound pugnacity plays into Gore's hands as much as his earlier pacifism did. In the debate, Gore was completely ready for Bradley, turning every accusation of foul play back on his accuser. "If that's not negative, I don't what it is," Gore said, in response to Bradley's charge that he is a favorite of Washington lobbyists. The vice president also brought up the fact that Bradley injected Willie Horton into the campaign and was forced to apologize for an unfair ad. "I have never mentioned your name in an ad, I have never used your picture in an ad," Gore said. "There is nothing I have said in this campaign that is in any way mean spirited." Every time Bradley took a whack at him, Gore appealed to the ref: "I didn't foul him-- he fouled me!"
Many who saw this debate judged the nonstop quarrelling about who started it to be childish. But that's fine with Gore, since it reduces the two men to the same level. The point of Gore's litigiousness isn't to establish that Bradley's campaign behavior really is worse than his own--though he claims it is. It's to establish that there's no real difference in their behavior. If they're the same, then Gore is better because he doesn't hold himself out as a paragon of political saintliness. By his own rules, Gore can go negative so long as he doesn't make it "personal." But if Bradley goes negative, he's a sanctimonious hypocrite. "If you're going to talk about a higher standard, you're going to have to live by them," Gore said, clearly delighted to be yanking Bradley off his high horse. He knows that once Bradley has thrown even a few punches, he can't reclaim the status of a conscientious objector.
Is there any way for Bradley to escape from Gore's box? Not that I can think of.
(Click here for Ballot Box's review of the Republican debate.)