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Gore's Secret Weapon

The 30-Second Ad That Can Beat Bradley.


Posted Tuesday, August 3, 1999

        A surprising number of political insiders -- and a larger and more surprising number of non-insiders -- seem to have already decided that Vice President Al Gore's presidential run is doomed. Ordinarily, it would be hard to argue with this conclusion: just look at where Gary Hart was at this point in his campaign against Walter Mondale's machine in 1984, and then look at how well Gore's challenger, ex-Senator Bill Bradley, is already doing. In the comparison, Gore seems like Mondale without the hipness. Bradley seems like Hart with money, as Bradley adviser Will Robinson boasted to the New York Times. And with a better marriage, he might have added.

        Case closed. Except for one thing: Gore has a semi-concealed weapon, a mighty hammer he can bring down on Bradley in the early primaries, especially in relatively conservative states like New Hampshire. The weapon? Welfare reform.

        In the summer of 1996, Gore was one of those urging President Clinton to sign the historic Republican-crafted reform that basically ended the federal "entitlement" to welfare and sent the program (and the money to fund it) back to the states. Bradley opposed the bill, with his customary self-satisfied high-mindedness. He even sponsored a clever, legalistic amendment that almost half-gutted the bill at the last minute.

        Three years later, Gore is looking awfully right, and Bradley awfully wrong. Welfare rolls, as Clinton announced this week, have been cut almost in half, without a visible increase in poverty (indeed, black child poverty is plummeting). On Meet the Press two days ago, Tim Russert asked Bradley about his welfare vote. Bradley's answer, in part:

        I also think that it's not wise, after everything we've known about the importance of the bond between the mother and the child in the first three years of life, to have a program that severs that bond. I think that the full measure of whether this program has succeeded or not will, of course, be at the end of five years when people will be cut off unceremoniously. ... So I think the jury is still out here. Now, welfare needed to be reformed, but I thought the best way to do it was to build on the act that we passed in 1988, which Senator Moynihan was a strong author of. And that was to still have federal commitment, but state experimentation in how to deal with the root problem, which is too many children being born in families with a single parent.

        Bradley's answer was probably the best he could do with this question. It's not much. First, though the 1996 bill does contain a putative five-year time limit, there are dozens of ways around it. (If a state wants to keep a family on the dole, for example, it can just say it is paying for that family with "state" as opposed to "federal" money. That's on top of an explicit 20-percent-of-the-caseload exemption.) No family will be automatically and "unceremoniously" tossed off unless a state wants to do that, which most won't (they'd be doing it already if they wanted to). What happens after five years will probably be more of what's been happening. Bradley knows this, or should.

        Second, the Moynihan approach that Bradley endorses was pathetically weak. Basically, Senator Moynihan's Reagan-era Family Support Act required a relatively small percentage of welfare mothers to do something - usually some form of "training." Mothers with young children - almost half the caseload -- were exempted even from these requirements. The penalty for refusing to even go to a "job readiness" class, much less to actually work, was limited to loss of a small portion of the welfare check. Worse, "state experimentation," rather than being encouraged, was sharply limited -- a state couldn't, for example, have tried out President Clinton's own "two-years-and-go-to-work" plan. Real welfare reform was achieved only when politicians stopped listening to Moynihan, whose chief qualification as the Senate's welfare reform expert was that he had eloquently botched the job four previous times.

        Third, with his talk about the mother-child bond, it's pretty clear Bradley shares Moynihan's aversion to requiring many welfare mothers to go to work. That's not a crazy position, though it's subject to attack on many fronts. (e.g.: a) the whole "Zero-to Three" fetish is under a scientific cloud - see Erica Goode's story in today's New York Times; b) requiring mothers of young children to work prevents them from growing accustomed to welfare; c) it also communicates forcefully to other potential single mothers the message that you don't get out of working just by having an out-of-wedlock child; and d) most mothers of young children in non-welfare families work.) Bradley's position is less defensible if, like Moynihan, he would also block the state experiments that might prove him wrong. So far, the states that seem to have been most successful since 1996 have been those, like Wisconsin, that do expect single mothers with very young children to work, at least when provided with subsidized day care.

        Voters can make up their own minds. But they are certainly on notice that a President Bradley would probably try to stop the current wave of reform in its tracks. Give Bradley a Democratic Congress and you can all but declare the 1996 reform dead. One of President Clinton's two or three most important domestic achievements would be undone, and the Democrats would again have to struggle with the (accurate) charge of being the party of the dole.

        It's not hard to predict what the voters might say. Welfare has always been an emotional issue, the subject of highly effective 30-second ads. With Bradley, we have that rare instance of a potentially devastating negative political spot that would be justified in both substance and proportionality. "Bradley: Wrong on Welfare ... and Wrong for America!" -- you get the idea. If feuding Gore admen Carter Eskew and Bob Squier can't cook up a killer TV campaign along those lines, they should find a new profession to be rivals in. Certainly Gore has enough money to put such ads on the air.

        And if Gore doesn't do it and loses to Bradley, you can bet George Bush will.

        The Duty of Hype: George Bush versus the Snipe-O-Meter!

        Welcome, Talk!: extends a warm welcome to fellow-startup Talk magazine! The similarities between our two publications are almost eerie. Both media startups burst on the scene in a blaze of publicity. Both seem to be edited by glamorous college-educated types with erratic employment records. [This Tina Brown woman sounds fascinating -- can we learn more about her? -- ed.] Neither pays its writers much. And both will get better!

Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

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