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Last week, even before Bolten's shop put the finishing touches on the plan, the Vice President and his staff were trying to discredit it. As Gore was saying the plan wouldn't cover enough senior citizens, Bolten and his staff were keeping quiet about where to set the bar for full coverage--at 135% of poverty-level income (about $14,000 for a family of two), which is where a similar congressional plan set it, or higher? Bush would like to go higher to blunt Gore's criticism, but he's in a budget box. If he goes too far, Gore will slam him for promising money he doesn't have.
Bush will offer seniors a choice among private health plans, a system modeled on the federal employees' health system. Gore will sniff and call it a voucher plan. Gore is already pointing to the state of Nevada, which tried an approach similar to Bush's and discovered that no qualified insurance companies wanted to take part. (In response, Austin will insist that Bush's plan is different from Nevada's.) Later this week, after Bush announces his proposal, Gore plans to give an economic speech that's sure to hammer home his charge that Bush's tax cut is so big it doesn't leave room for the drugs plan. Bolten's forces will send out spreadsheets saying that isn't so.
For a candidate with only five years of governing experience, the policy shop has special importance. It has to be substantive and look substantive. So when the campaign recently put out its second policy tome, aides referred to the number of pages (457), as much as to the charts and graphs, as proof that this is one hard-thinking operation. "This is the campaign that isn't supposed to be specific?" asked communications director Karen Hughes, holding up the thick volume as if it could beat back Gore's attacks all by itself.
But Bolten's operation isn't just for show. Without a history of clearly defined positions on national issues, Bush needed his policy wonks to grow one for him. In 1999, Bolten organized a series of day-long briefings from an array of G.O.P. policy All-Stars, and he has been ripening the fruit of those sessions ever since. The result has been comprehensive enough so that the centrist Democrat Leadership Council complains that Bush has poached ideas from it. And while some of his proposals, like his plan for private Social Security investment accounts, are purposely vague to avoid their being picked apart by Gore, Bush has provided a level of specificity on other subjects--education reform, defense and tax policy--that surpasses that of many past nominees.