One of Bill Clinton's rules of politics is, "Whenever anyone says it's not about the money, it's about the money." This old truth was made wonderfully fresh the other day in a debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley on NBC's "Meet the Press," when the reliably amusing Al Gore pulled one of the funnier stunts of what has been, in the comic sense, an unusually rich campaign season. Turning to Bradley, Gore offered a "solution" to a problem of which the vice president has intimate knowledge, that of the corruption caused by the flood of favor-seeking money in politics.
"We don't have to wait for the Republican nominee to be picked, Bill," said Gore. "I'll make you this offer right now: If you will agree, I will stop running all television and radio commercials until this nomination is decided. That can get a lot of the money out of the presidential campaign and accomplish one of the best reforms. What about it?"
Bradley replied, "It sounds to me like you're having trouble raising money," which was not quite right. The point of Gore's proposal is not that Gore is having trouble raising money (the old Hatch Act loopholer can still shake down a Buddhist nun with the best of them), but that he is spending it too fast.
As discussed in a detailed and convincing analysis last week by Seth Gitell, political writer for the Boston Phoenix, Gore is fast running out of cash. As of Sept. 30, the Gore campaign had spent $15.2 million, compared with $8.5 million by the Bradley campaign. "By the time of the New Hampshire primary," Gitell writes, "Gore will have spent around $20 million."
In itself, this is no great matter. But Gore faces two unanticipated problems, and these combine to form a dynamic that the Gore campaign correctly, if belatedly, understands as potentially fatal. First, Gore faces Bradley, whom he badly underestimated as a Democratic primary challenger, and against whom he must now spend millions upon millions. As Gitell notes, even if Gore wins New Hampshire's Feb. 1 primary, he will have to continue to spend heavily against Bradley through the 19-state March 7 Super Tuesday primary. Almost all of this spending will go to television and radio commercials.
Gore's second problem is that he decided to accept federal matching funds and George Bush did not. This means that Gore is limited, by the controlling legal authorities accompanying those funds, to total spending in the primaries of $40 million--$33 million in direct expenditures plus up to $7 million for fund-raising activities. Bush, who is not subject to federal election laws because he is not taking a dime of federal money, may spend as much of his immense campaign fund ($38 million cash-on-hand as of Sept. 30) in any way and at any time he wishes.
The net result: Gore, forced by Bradley, may reach his pre-convention spending limit as early as May, leaving him without funds to reply to a devastating three months of television assaults by his Republican opponent in the general election. As Gitell writes, "If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Clinton did the same thing to Bob Dole in 1996."
The only way for Gore to avoid this is to drastically cut his rate of spending in the primaries. The only way to do that is to drastically cut his overwhelmingly paramount advertising costs. The only non-suicidal way to do that is to somehow arrange it so that Bradley will likewise refrain from advertising. So--a brilliant notion!--let's just ask that dumb ol' Bill to do that little ol' thing. These guys are thinkers.
It is to Bradley's credit that he managed to restrain himself from openly laughing at Gore--he barely managed. When Gore, plodding along his script, demanded that Bradley agree to debate twice a week from now to the nomination "and get rid of all these television and radio commercials," Bradley looked at him and drawled: "You know something? For 10 months that I was running for president, you ignored me, you pretended I didn't exist. Suddenly I started to do better and you want to debate every day." Gore repeated the demand. And then--no doubt asking himself What Would Jesus Do--he held out his hand to Bradley, pressing him to "shake on it," right then and there. Bradley lowered his gaze, and gave the hand a look that of utter disdain. "Al, that's good," he said. "I like that hand. But the answer is no. I mean, why should I agree now?"
Good question, Senator. Nice try, Mr. Vice President.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.