Vice President Al Gore is resurrecting an old Democratic punching bag, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to cast doubt on George W. Bush’s plans for Medicare reform.
Trying to link the GOP presidential candidate to one of the least popular proposals of a broadly unpopular national figure, the Gore campaign is highlighting 5-year-old comments the Texas governor made in support of a Gingrich Medicare proposal.
“Elderly people will not suffer as a result of this plan,” Bush said in a 1995 television interview with KXAN in Austin, Texas. “It’s going to make the plan solvent. And Republicans will be heralded, not only for saving Medicare, but at the same time for having the political courage to balance the budget.”
Gore hopes those words will come back to haunt Bush. His aides have already distributed videotapes of the grainy, 5-year-old clip to the media and the Democratic candidate plans to repeat Bush’s words to his audiences on the campaign trail.
Gore previewed his new line-of-attack Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla. — his first stop on a three-day tour aimed at highlighting his own Medicare reform proposal.
“When they say ‘reform,’ they sometimes mean ‘dismantle the program,’” Gore said of Republicans. “[Bush] supported Newt Gingrich’s assaults on Medicare.”
The “assaults” Gore referred to were the $270 billion in Medicare cuts the 1995 proposal would have been phased in over seven years.
“This is a typical Democratic scare tactic,” Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes responded, “[a] total misrepresentation of the situation.”
“They’re highlighting a plan that didn’t pass by a member of Congress no longer in office,” remarked another Bush aide. “A little thin if you asked me.”
Bush has proposed $198 billion in new spending for the federal health insurance program, but the vice president insists the criticism is fair.
“What he said five years ago was his strong support of the Newt Gingrich plan that former Speaker Gingrich said would cause Medicare to ‘wither on the vine,’” Gore said today on ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America.
The failed 1995 proposal was intended to reshape Medicare and encourage recipients to enroll in managed-care networks.
“We believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it,” Gingrich told a Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association meeting.
The speaker later insisted he was referring only to the Health Care Financing Administration that administers Medicare, but Democrats seized on the comment, saying it proved the GOP was out to destroy the entire Medicare program.
The Democratic National Committee even released a 30-second television ad that included a truncated sound bite of Gingrich’s remark.
“Finally we learn the truth about how the Republicans want to eliminate Medicare,” the narrator said ominously.
That spot featured an image of Gingrich with the Sen. Bob Dole and was one of several Democratic ads used to tie Dole, the eventual 1996 Republican nominee, to the controversial House speaker.
Gore’s attempts to resurrect his party’s favorite GOP punching bag come just as his opponent is regaining momentum and rising in polls.
“The vice president is making a desperate attempt to distract attempt to distract attention from the fact that his Medicare plan to guarantee the long-term solvency of Medicare,” said Hughes.
On Monday, the Gore campaign unveiled a 74-page booklet titled “Medicare at the Crossroads,” outlining the vice president’s plan to “modernize” the 35-year-old program and harshly criticizing his opponent’s approach.
By tying Bush to Gingrich, a former standard-bearer for right wing conservatism, Gore hopes to discredit the Texas governor’s claims of being “a different kind of Republican.”
Gingrich was a lightning rod for Democrats throughout his tumultuous leadership of the House. When he left office in November 1998, an ABCNEWS poll showed 58 percent of the public disapproved of the way he handled his job as speaker.
To this day, he remains a popular bogeyman for Democrats — particularly in the two most expensive Senate races in the nation. In New York, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democratic candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, has tried to tie her rival, Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., to the former speaker.
And in neighboring New Jersey, Democratic candidate Jon Corzine is airing ads accusing his GOP opponent, Rep. Bob Franks, of once supporting Gingrich’s plan to make “draconian cuts” to Medicare.
ABCNEWS’ John Berman, Dana Hill and Elizabeth Wilner contributed to this report.