WASHINGTON -- It is axiomatic in American politics today that negative campaigning usually works so long as it is based on a kernel of truth. So it is not surprising that Vice President Al Gore has decided to begin attacking Bill Bradley.
Like any politician with a public record, the former senator from New Jersey is vulnerable. He has clearly reversed himself by supporting federal subsidies for ethanol now that he is running in a state, Iowa, where corn growers depend on those subsidies.
There are undoubtedly other issues on which Mr. Bradley can be thrown on the defensive by the newly aggressive Mr. Gore. After all, he served three terms in the Senate and cast thousands of votes.
One obvious example is the vote Mr. Bradley cast for the spending cuts that President Ronald Reagan proposed in his 1981 budget package.
Mr. Bradley counters by pointing out that he was one of only eight Democrats who had the nerve to oppose the tax reductions that were the core of the "Reaganomics" plan approved that year.
All that happened 18 years ago, of course, so it may not have great resonance today. But the change of heart on ethanol is just the kind of thing that can be used effectively in negative television advertising as well as on the stump.
There are, however, some legitimate questions that can be raised about the political efficacy of the Gore strategy that has been winning such widespread applause from the theater critics of the press.
The first is whether there is any test of logic to be applied to the arguments the vice president is making against Mr. Bradley. In Iowa last weekend he unveiled his new campaign theme, his charge that Mr. Bradley was guilty of running out on his party at a defining moment when he decided to retire from the Senate two years after the Republicans took over Congress.
That was the time, Mr. Gore argued, when real Democrats stood their ground. "Stay and fight," Mr. Gore chanted. "Stay and Fight," said the blue-and-white posters waved by his supporters in the audience. It is an argument with obvious resonance among some Democrats.
But how about the inferences that can be drawn from the "stay and fight" line? Are we supposed to give Al Gore some special credit because he didn't step down as vice president when Newt Gingrich came to power in the House? Should Mr. Gore be given thanks for his willingness to seek a second term in 1996?
The more serious question about the Gore strategy is whether it is a good fit with the electorate of 2000. The vice president is following a playbook used by many successful candidates in the past.
But Bradley is betting that the voters have grown so disgusted with the old politics of slash and burn that they won't be impressed by these negative attacks. So rather than responding in kind, at least so far, he has chosen to remain restrained in presenting himself as a different kind of candidate. He is not going to react to every dart hurled at him, Mr. Bradley says.
It is a risky strategy. There is little political history to suggest that remaining above the fray pays any dividends. On the contrary, the lesson learned repeatedly by one candidate after another has been that an instant and massive response is essential when the opposition begins to attack.
It is also true, however, that candidates who "go negative" sometimes suffer a backlash themselves if the perception grows that they have gone too far. Television commercials decrying mudslinging also work.
And the vice president already has higher negative ratings in opinion polls than any of the candidates who seem to have any realistic chance of becoming president next year -- meaning Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain as well as the two Democrats.
It would be imprudent to reach any conclusions at this point about whether the Gore strategy will cut into the imposing poll numbers that Mr. Bradley has been achieving. Primary voters will pay more attention to how the two candidates conduct themselves in debates that begin late this month and how they appear on the television news programs as the campaign evolves.
But Al Gore is clearly betting that the old politics is still the best politics and that going negative pays off.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 10/15/99