Bill Bradley's refusal to rule out a tax increase to pay for his health plan is based on his belief that voters are ready for honesty at any cost, according to his advisers, who say they are braced for accusations that his frankness could resurrect the tax-and-spend label that Democrats have worked to shed during the 1990s.
Bradley's position on taxes is part of a strategy he has developed for trying to convince suburban voters that it is in the country's interest to work toward health insurance for the poor and greater justice for people of all races.
"This is about just going out and saying who you are and what you believe, and maybe you can win by doing that," Bradley told campaign workers at a rally on Saturday at his headquarters in West Orange, N.J. "We're going to win for the right reasons."
Some high-level Democrats fear, however, that Bradley will come to be seen as a latter-day Walter Mondale, who advocated "a new realism," and used his acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic convention to promise a tax increase--a move that later was viewed as a political disaster.
Bradley has not advocated a tax increase. Last week, he said that he was committed to providing free or affordable health care to 95 percent of the country, and, if necessary, would consider seeking a tax increase to do so.
But Vice President Gore already is making an issue of the statement. And his strategists say he will push the issue in his debates with Bradley in Iowa and New Hampshire, leaving open the possibility that the nominating contests in those states could provide a quick verdict on Bradley's candor.
Bradley's position on taxes was greeted with delight by the Gore campaign. Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, left a phone message yesterday declaring, "The tax man cometh!"
Gore has said his programs would require no tax increase. His campaign aides said that barring a drastic change in the economy or other unforeseen circumstances, the only tax he would consider trying to increase would be on cigarettes--and primarily as a disincentive to smoking, not as a source of revenue, since it would probably be offset by cuts elsewhere.
Bob Shrum, a media adviser to Gore, said the tax issue could negate one of the reasons Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) gave for endorsing Bradley--that he can be elected.
"He's going to be hoist on his own petard," Shrum said. "It would be devastating in a general election."
Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, agreed that Bradley had done Republicans a great favor. Nicholson described Bradley as "[Michael] Dukakis with a jump shot," and said any politician who had what he called "the temerity" not to rule out a tax increase at this point in the campaign would almost certainly wind up pushing for one.
Al From, who as president of the Democratic Leadership Council helped popularize the notion of the "New Democrat," said he likes Bradley's health insurance plan, and has always viewed the former New Jersey senator as "something of a fellow traveler."
But From, who is an occasional adviser to Gore, said Bradley would be better off phasing in his health plan at a rate that could be paid for without a tax increase.
"You wouldn't want to screw up the formula that has given us the best economy of our lifetime," From said.
Bradley's plan would fund free health care for children whose parents could not afford it, and would provide subsidies to help working adults obtain coverage. He estimates the cost at $55 billion to $65 billion a year, which he acknowledges is "a big number."
"It's got to cost if you're going to get it done, and so you put it out there and take your chances," Bradley told the editorial board of The Washington Post last week. "If you're timid in your candidacy, you're going to be timid in your presidency and that's not why I want to be president."
Providing insight into how he would adapt his Great Society rhetoric for a general election campaign if he were to win the Democratic nomination, Bradley said he hoped to build support for his costly plan by unrolling it in stages.
"If you talk about only uninsured, what people hear is 'poor,' and then they discount the subject," he said. "Your entry point is to talk about the anxiety and insecurity of people who do have health insurance. Then you can talk about those that are uninsured."
Bradley is taking a similar approach to selling such plans as a federal effort to discourage racial profiling by police departments.
"It's the white audience that I need to talk to about things like white skin privilege," he said at The Post. "Not in a point-the-finger-at-a-racist mode, because that's not what I'm meaning, but in a mode, 'I bet you never thought about this,' and then begin to explain it so that people begin to open up, begin to loosen up about the subject and begin to see that there's another way of doing things."
Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, said she was prepared to answer unfavorable comparisons between her candidate and the failed Democrats of the '80s. "Walter Mondale had a proposal to raise taxes," she said. "Bill Bradley has not made a proposal to raise taxes."
Dunn said voters "are ready for someone who's going to be straight with them," and said Gore's campaign had been attacking Bradley daily "on any issue they can find, regardless of fairness or accuracy."
Indeed, Bradley has said he would first seek to close loopholes and cut back on subsidies to corporations. "Then you have to see where your revenues were and make your decision then as to whether, if you didn't have enough, what you were going to do--cutting spending or increasing taxes," he said.
Today, Bradley plans to release an updated version of "Promises Without Pricetags"--a list of 63 proposals that the Bradley campaign says Gore has made without accounting for them in his budget documents. "It's difficult to claim leadership when you can't be either consistent or specific," said Eric Hauser, Bradley's spokesman.
Joe Andrew, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Democrats had benefited during the Clinton years by becoming more identified with fiscal discipline, budget-balancing and government efficiency. "Those are the kinds of things that have brought us a whole bunch of new voters," Andrew said.
He said that although Bradley's stance was risky, it could prove to be shrewd. "If someone says they are willing to consider raising taxes, that immediately sounds like the truth, so I'm sure that he scores points on candor," Andrew said. "On the other hand, it allows Republicans to once again paint us into the 'tax-and-spend liberal' corner. That's the dilemma."
CAPTION: Bill Bradley: "We're going to win for the right reasons."