WASHINGTON -- In his strongest attack yet on his rival for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Al Gore dismissed Bill Bradley's health care plan yesterday as fiscally irresponsible, filled with "big mistakes" and a "step backwards" politically.
Gore's sharply worded assault, in an interview with The Sun, signals an intensification of the Democratic presidential contest.
With Bradley gaining on Gore in recent voter surveys, the two are preparing to meet head-to-head for the first time next week at a town-hall-style forum in New Hampshire.
The ambitious Bradley plan, which is designed to make health care available to most uninsured Americans, is a political "throwback," according to Gore.
It would completely exhaust the projected federal budget surplus, the vice president claimed, leaving no money to fix Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly.
"To use up the entire surplus for your first campaign proposal and do it in a way that squanders tens of billions of dollars in subsidies for wealthy people, who already have health insurance, I was genuinely surprised," Gore said.
Under the Bradley plan, all health insurance premiums paid by individuals, regardless of income, would be excluded from federal taxation. The proposal would also let the uninsured join the health insurance plan that serves federal workers.
"The debate's long since moved beyond where we can just cast fiscal responsibility to the winds," Gore said, perched casually on a couch in his Air Force Two cabin after a two-day campaign swing in New Hampshire.
"Part of the achievement of the modern Democratic Party is establishing fiscal discipline and bringing interest rates down and getting a booming economy. And that means paying attention to the entitlement programs and these huge capital flows that can make or break our economy."
Gore, who describes himself as a New Democrat who values fiscal prudence, was asked if he was trying to portray Bradley as an old-fashioned, free-spending liberal.
"I'm not using that label," he replied.
Eric Hauser, a spokesman for Bradley, said last night, "It is clear that attacking has become the staple of the Gore campaign.
"Our proposal is an excellent balance of the public and private sectors and would be a significant accomplishment in addressing a problem that's been with us all decade," Hauser said.
Previously, the Bradley campaign has said that the former New Jersey senator's policy initiatives would stay within the boundaries of a balanced budget.
Gore's point-by-point critique of Bradley's health care proposal closely tracks a recent analysis by Martin Feldstein, who was chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan.
Gore noted Feldstein's analysis during the interview, calling the Republican economist one of the few people who have really "dug into" his rival's plan.
Last month, Gore unveiled his own, more modest health plan that would guarantee every child access to affordable health insurance by 2005. Gore's proposal would cost $156 billion over 10 years, he estimates. He would also pour an additional $160 billion of the $1 trillion federal surplus into shoring up Medicare over the same period.
When Bradley announced his proposal three weeks ago, he took a swipe at Gore's plan, describing it as timid.
Bradley's proposal, which he described as an attempt to "do something big [about] a problem that affects almost all Americans," is less expensive than President Clinton's health care overhaul, which Congress killed in 1994. According to Bradley, his plan would cost $65 billion a year. Warnings that the actual cost would exceed $1 trillion over 10 years are wrong, his campaign has said, while refusing to issue an estimate over that period.
Feldstein, in a column published this week in the Wall Street Journal, projected the cost of Bradley's plan to be at least $1.4 trillion over 10 years.
Gore used that figure yesterday in attacking the Bradley proposal. He said Bradley's plan would eliminate Medicaid, the government health plan for the poor, and replace it with a "complicated alternative" that would "wreck" the federal employees' health plan.
Gore said that, years ago, he had looked at the idea of opening the federal employees health plan to all Americans "and rejected it, for the obvious reason." High-risk patients who couldn't otherwise get insurance would join the plan, "driving the premiums sky-high and wrecking its financial solvency," he said.
"Now, if you can put out a plan that in one fell swoop cancels Medicaid, cancels any chance to fix Medicare and wrecks the federal employee benefit plan, that's a pretty impressive day's work," Gore said sarcastically.
He said the existing Medicaid plan offers a "very generous" package of benefits for poor families that had been "heavily negotiated" over the years with Congress. Those receiving Medicaid benefits, he said, are "not going to get anywhere nearly the package that Medicaid provides," under Bradley's plan.
Because of these weaknesses, Gore added, "it could never pass in this Congress."