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COLUMN

His Own Worst Enemy

Michael J. Ring

As the political winds whisper through the cornfields by Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, they bear to the close listener a quiet but discernible message: Bill Bradley’s candidacy is growing stronger by the day. And in the Democratic power circles, for groups groomed for seven years now by Bill Clinton to work to ensure his vice president is nominated, the past few weeks have caused some very anxious moments.

Yes, Al Gore is still the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. And yes, the $8.9 million Gore’s campaign committee raised in the first quarter was double that of Bradley. And yes, Gore received key endorsements from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.). But still the vice president has made political mistakes, and the cracks in his candidacy are starting to appear.

Bradley has made significant inroads into Gore’s lead during the month of March. The latest CNN/Time tracking poll shows Gore holding a 49-29 percent lead over Bradley among Democrats in the race for that party’s nomination; at the beginning of March the poll found Gore with a commanding 34-point lead.

While Gore has been building up his fundraising lead, Bradley has hit the campaign trail, making frequent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. The former New Jersey senator has tapped into the bitterness of Hawkeye State unions over Gore’s policies. Given Gore’s alleged soft support of labor, perhaps symbolized best by his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, many rank-and-file union members have found Bradley’s voice a refreshing change. While Bradley is no firebrand liberal and not labor’s ideal candidate, organized labor may just rally around him after feeling betrayed by the Clinton administration.

Bradley also has some legitimate credentials which position him to the left of Gore and more in tune with rank-and-file Democratic voters. Most notably and courageously, Bradley stood against the welfare “reform” act of 1996, the one piece of legislation which better than any others demonstrates this administration’s desertion of basic Democratic principles by essentially destroying an already-gossamer safety net. And although Bradley did vote for NAFTA, in the Senate he advocated a moral trade policy, including provisions demanding China guarantee human rights if it wanted most favored nation trade status.

While Bradley goes around the country, he’s helped by another force acting against Al Gore: Al Gore himself. The vice-president is his own worst enemy, often looking aloof, vulnerable, and prone to making insanely stupid statements. Did you hear Al Gore invented the Internet? Well, in talking about his role in Congress in working to promote the Internet, he made that very claim. Instantly Al Gore has launched himself into the company of his predecessor, Dan Quayle, in the realm of vice-presidential idiots. And one of those whispers across the corn field, in the form of a passing mention in Time of Gore’s habit to clap with fingers open and the need of his staff to tell him to clap with fingers closed, demonstrates just how socially pathetic he is.

But the Internet claim is child’s play compared to some of the fundraising irregularities in Gore’s past. Remember that in 1996 he attended a fundraiser at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles, raising questions of whether he violated federal law. The vice president himself has admitted that his presence at the event was “inappropriate.” Gore has also been accused of soliciting donations from his White House office, allegations which, if true, would amount to another violation of federal campaign finance law. For someone who talks about supporting clean government and campaign finance reform, Gore certainly has a lot of skeletons in his closet.

And Gore, in addition to sharing his boss’s propensity for campaign-finance scandals, also shares his boss’s tendency to waffle. Politicians waffle all the time, but in Gore’s case his wavering on tobacco is particularly egregious. At the 1996 Democratic convention, Gore emotionally spoke of his sister’s death from lung cancer, and since then has been one of the chief supporters of the administration’s anti-smoking campaign. But two elections earlier, in 1988, then-presidential candidate Gore, told tobacco farmers, “Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve chopped it. I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.” If Gore were to admit openly and publicly his change of opinion, then such conflicting positions would be forgivable. But by seeming to sweep his earlier position under the rug, never publicly confronting his change of heart, we have to question how earnest he is with either policy -- and how honest he is with us.

While Gore is still the frontrunner, he is no longer invincible. Bradley has narrowed the gap and has started to energize the Democratic rank-and-file as Gore stumbles along. Unless Gore can capture some momentum and positive press quickly, and unless he can connect with primary voters, the race for the White House could become a dead heat.