Gore and Bradley: Handling Health Care With Care

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For Democrats, 1994 was a very bad year. It was the year of Bill and Hillary's health care bomb, and quickly morphed into the year the Republicans stormed the Dems' stronghold on the Hill. For the health care issue, times have changed a little — four years of living with penny-pinching HMOs has whetted voters' appetites for a kinder health care scheme. Making sure more of America stays healthy is again a politically profitable battle cry. But for Clinton's would-be successors, health care in 1999 is still very tricky: How much health care is good government, and how much is Big Government? How close to "universal" can a well-meaning Democrat get without sparking another Republican Revolution? Nobody will know for sure until November 2000, but in the meantime Bill Bradley and Al Gore are playing dueling banjos, trying to find out.

For Bradley, who unveiled the specifics of his plan on Tuesday in progressive California, the magic number is 95 percent. Saying "big problems require big thinking" — yes, that was a slap at the post-1994 incrementalism of Clinton and Gore — Bradley outlined a $65 billion-a-year plan for universal access (not universal coverage, mind you, just access) aimed particularly at the 45 million Americans who don't have health care right now. Bradley's plan sidesteps the Clintons' in several ways: Where Clinton wanted to set up a government system to mandate coverage, under Bradley's plan only children would be required to have insurance, and for enforcement Bradley would "trust in the basic goodness of the American people." (Not always a good idea, but definitely small government.) Bradley's plan would also retain the principle of employer-sponsored health insurance, and rely heavily on tax credits rather than new spending — which Republicans haven't been averse to in the past.

Gore was there in 1994; any fear of "big thinking" on health care is understandable. "Bradley seems to be more ambitious than Gore," TIME White House correspondent Karen Tumulty says, recalling the plan Gore set forth three weeks ago. "Gore has limited his scope to better coverage for what are considered the most vulnerable constituencies — children and old people." Gore has promised to cover all children by 2005, and proposed giving senior citizens and self-employed people a 25 percent refundable tax credit for health insurance if they don't have it already. Gore has steered clear of scary price tags, saying he'll fill us in later, and bashed Bradley's plan from his post-1994 home in the political center. Bradley's plan not only wouldn't save Medicare, the Gore camp said, but it was "wildly unrealistic" and "wildly expensive." Bradley responded by calling Gore's plan "timid."

"Each of them seems to have taken his own lesson from 1994," says Tumulty. "But they're both aware of the core fallacy in the Clinton plan — the all-or-nothing proposition that everybodyhad to be covered, or it wasn't worth doing at all." For Bradley, the answer is better presentation and less bureaucracy. He knows how good he is at selling noble ideas, and knows also that his only enemy right now is Gore, who can't gun for him on the issue with any of the zeal that the Republicans brought to their crusade against Clinton five years ago. For Gore, it's less, less, less — less coverage, less ambition and less bureaucracy means a smaller target for a compassionate type like George W. Bush. It's also less inspiring, which is and always has been Gore's main problem. Will Bradley take down the veep with a bigger, more idealistic candidacy featuring a bigger, more idealistic health-care plan? With apologies to Jedediah Purdy, thatwould be ironic.