Under fire from Bill Bradley during Wednesday's Democratic debate, Vice President Gore declared unequivocally: "I have always supported Roe v. Wade. I have always supported a woman's right to choose."
But as a congressman from Tennessee in the 1980s, Gore displayed a different attitude about abortion. He voted for a law that described a fetus as a person and wrote one Nashville voter in 1983, "It is my deep personal conviction that abortion is wrong."
The contrast in Gore's statements is one of several examples--some clear-cut, others debatable--that the Bradley campaign has raised in recent days to support its complaint that the vice president is lying and distorting facts to gain advantage in their increasingly contentious battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Last night, Bradley prepared to run a new television ad accusing Gore of straddling the issue of abortion.
A review of several of the key points raised by Bradley and his surrogates suggests that while their rhetoric may be overheated considering the nature of modern campaigns, they have identified several glaring misstatements or distortions by the vice president on abortion and other issues.
Gore wrongly suggested, for instance, that Bradley did not "speak up" on campaign finance reform until he ran for president. The former senator actually co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to change the campaign finance system during his tenure in Washington.
On the crucial issue of health care, by contrast, Gore's attacks on Bradley's ambitious plan to provide coverage for all Americans, while containing some factual errors, appear substantive. And the sheer complexity of Bradley's proposals has left some room for Gore to reach his conclusions.
Yesterday, Gore sought to play down his conflicts with Bradley. "I'm not going to get down to that level. I'm going to continue to emphasize a positive agenda," he told a New Hampshire television station. "No, I did not," Gore responded when asked whether he had ever made misstatements about Bradley.
Bradley, who has adopted a more aggressive posture in recent days, defended his charges against Gore: "When someone misrepresents your position, as Al Gore has done consistently in this campaign, you call them on it."
Among the areas of sharpest dispute are abortion, campaign finance and health care.
In the case of abortion, while the vice president has portrayed himself as a consistent supporter of abortion rights, his voting record in the House and his official letters suggest that he once had severe doubts about the procedure. These doubts included concerns that abortion "is arguably the taking of a human life," the fundamental premise of the antiabortion movement.
Gore and his aides contend that he only strayed from the abortion rights stand in his early opposition to federal funding of Medicaid abortions, a stand he subsequently abandoned. "It's true that early in my career I wrestled with the question of what kinds of exceptions should be allowed to the general rule that Medicaid should also pay for this procedure. I have come to the strong view that all women, regardless of their income, must have the right to choose," he said in Wednesday's debate.
In letters to constituents and special interest groups on the subject, Gore explained his votes against federal funding in terms suggesting deeper concerns: "It is wrong to spend federal funds for what is arguably the taking of a human life," he wrote in 1983. He used the same language in 1987, after he moved to the Senate.
Gore also voted in 1984 for an amendment to civil rights legislation that declared in its entirety: "For the purposes of this act, the term 'person' shall include unborn children from the moment of conception."
This amendment, sponsored by then-Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.), affirms the core of the argument used by abortion opponents: that a fetus is a person, and therefore abortion is murder.
Gore campaign officials supplied a large volume of material describing the vice president's record on abortion from roughly 1988 to the present, which is solidly in the abortion rights camp and which has received the blessings of Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and feminist Gloria Steinem.
Some Gore supporters privately voiced regret that the vice president, instead of claiming consistent support of abortion rights, did not describe himself as a firm supporter for over a decade, and say that he reached this position after long and difficult scrutiny of the issue.
In the case of campaign finance, Gore said in the most recent debate: "I didn't wait until I ran for president to first speak up on campaign finance reform," a claim, repeated in television commercials, that clearly implies that Bradley did not "speak up" on the issue until he declared his presidential campaign.
Fred Wertheimer, former president of Common Cause and currently head of Democracy 21, a public interest group advocating campaign finance reform, said, "Gore's statements about Bradley's record in the Senate are not true."
Wertheimer said that from 1985 through 1996, in each of six Congresses, Bradley sponsored campaign finance legislation, and that "Bradley was an original co-sponsor" of the only legislation to get through Congress in recent years--only to be vetoed by President George Bush.
Wertheimer was sharply critical of the Clinton-Gore administration on the issue, contending that "this administration spent seven years basically paying lip service to the campaign finance issue" and that the White House failed to act in 1993, when there was a real chance of enacting legislation with a Democratic House and Senate.
Gore aides defended the critique of Bradley on the grounds that until 1996, Bradley never was the lead, or primary, sponsor of legislation.
Gore's full-fledged assault on Bradley's health care plan, the former senator's boldest single initiative, has also generated cries of foul from the Bradley camp.
Bradley's proposal to provide prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients, Gore contended Tuesday, would require seniors "to spend up to $900 of their own money before they get a penny of benefits." Gore's statement, Bradley countered, is "not correct."
In fact, the maximum would be $800: $300 a year in premiums along with an annual deductible of $500. And recipients could start getting benefits after paying as little as $525 if they exceeded the deductible in the first month they were in the plan.
But several health care experts said that Gore's point was well taken even though his numbers were slightly off. Under Bradley's proposal, healthier Medicare recipients would receive no benefits because their drug purchases would not exceed the $500 deductible. Gore's proposal would provide benefits right away. But Gore would cap benefits at $2,500 a year and require policyholders to pay half the costs until the ceiling had been reached.
Bradley would impose no limits on benefits and would cover three-quarters of the costs after the insured has paid the deductible.
The Bradley camp took strong issue with Gore's charge that Bradley's health plan would "leave people here in New Hampshire out in the cold."
The heart of Bradley's plan is direct aid to low-income people to enable them to purchase health policies. Single adults earning less than $16,400 would be eligible for a full subsidy, as would families with income below $32,800. Medicaid would be scrapped, a fact that Gore jumped on.
"You have said we'll eliminate the Medicaid program, and we'll put in its place a system of giving $150 a month, in the form of a voucher, or a subsidy--if you prefer that word--so that people can go into the private marketplace and get health insurance," Gore said.
Bradley aides protested yesterday that the $150-a-month figure represents only a "weighted average" of subsidies that would vary among states. "When Al Gore says everyone on Medicaid would get a $150 voucher, this is a complete distortion," said a Bradley adviser.
But Gore aides insisted that their candidate's point--that there is not enough money in the Bradley plan to pay for policies for the poor under today's prevailing rates--is on the mark.
His aides also said the vice president had solid grounds for suggesting that Bradley would abandon federal nursing home regulation, despite Bradley's insistence that the Health Care Financing Administration would still enforce the standards. They said Bradley had yet to explain how Washington would assert its authority, since his plan gives states responsibility for long-term care.