Rhetoric 2000: Gore Treats Bradley Like a Conservative & McCain Talks Like a Liberal

by Sean Tuffnell

As an admitted political junkie, I'm rarely surprised by the rhetoric coming from politicians of every political stripe. Demagoguery on issues dear to our hearts has become the political norm. This year is different however. Not for the absence of such talk, but for who is employing it and against whom.

It's common to hear liberals say conservatives want to bankrupt Medicare and destroy Medicaid. In fact, it would be shocking to hear a debate about the budget or taxes or really anything else with even the remotest impact on the two issues, without someone dragging out these tired claims. Want to cut taxes? You devil, there'll be no money left for Medicare. Want to reduce spending increases to balance the budget? Scoundrel, you're going to have seniors living in the streets eating dog food!

It came as no surprise then that Vice President Gore, a chief offender, recently focused his verbal attack on Medicare and Medicaid. Gore claims his opponent would gamble with Medicare's future by not setting enough money aside. Furthermore, he would end Medicaid leaving the needy without coverage.

Such talk from Gore is not surprising, as he has a long history of making such accusations. What is surprising is the political opponent in question is not a conservative, but rather fellow liberal, Bill Bradley.

Bradley asked for the attack when he dared propose changing Medicaid, a program historically plagued by waste, inefficiency, fraud and questionable quality of care. Bradley would shift money currently spent on Medicaid into tax credits for low-income workers so they can purchase the same kind of private insurance available to everyone else.

As for Medicare, Bradley's mistake was not proposing to reserve the non-social security surplus for it in order to postpone the inevitable: its bankruptcy. And make no mistake about it, this fundamentally flawed program will go broke due to increased life expectancy and a funding system which worked up until now, but won't once our generational balance begins tilting in the wrong direction. Maybe Bradley wants to shift Medicare recipients into private insurance, or maybe he wants to change the funding structure at the heart of the problem. Or maybe he's just hoping if he ignores it, it will go away. Regardless, his mistake in Gore's eyes is his silence.

There are also some surprising claims being made on the Republican side. Texas Governor George W. Bush has found his tax cut proposal under attack for being "fiscally irresponsible" and weighted toward the rich. Once again, it was to be expected for Bush, a self proclaimed conservative - "compassionate" or otherwise - to be accused of such nonsense. After all, I can't remember when a conservative wasn't attacked for proposing to let taxpayers keep more of what they earn.

In fact, it's quite common to hear liberals make that claim, even before they hear the details, as was the case with the Gore camp criticizing Bush's plan prior to its unveiling. But no one expected this argument from fellow conservative Sen. John McCain, who has repeatedly said in interviews that "60 percent of the benefits from Bush's tax cuts go to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans." Arguing for his own smaller tax cut proposal, McCain suggests: "I'm not giving tax cuts for the rich."

Granted McCain has emerged as Gov. Bush's chief rival for the party's nomination, but to use the left's class warfare arguments seemed strange to most observers. Even Rep. Lindsey Graham, McCain's chief lieutenant in the important primary state of South Carolina, had to admit to NBC's Tim Russert that it was classic class warfare talk, which he felt, should be avoided.

McCain makes his "60 percent" claim against Bush's tax cut because Bush has proposed reducing all five income tax rates. Since, as McCain should be aware, the top 10 percent of taxpayers - those with incomes above $79,000 - pay over 60 percent of all income taxes, the claim is easy. Any across-the-board tax cut can be accused of being weighted toward the rich, no matter how wrong-headed the argument is.

It remains to be seen whether either of these tactics will work. Can Gore win his party's nomination by scaring the party faithful into thinking Bradley is just a conservative dressed in liberal clothing? And can McCain win the Republican nomination employing the Democratic tactic of exploiting class envy and appealing to our worst instincts? Either way, it should be interesting.