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Gephardt's Last Stand

From the December 22, 2003 issue: The Iowa showdown.

Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID TELL
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He has remained characteristically optimistic in public, however. And having now seen the post-AFL-CIO-"setback" version of his Iowa campaign firsthand, I'm not sure he isn't right to be. AFSCME and the Service Employees are unions representing public-sector employees, who have relatively secure public-sector jobs, and whose principal worry is consequently that their relatively generous public-sector job benefits might one day be reduced. The 21 trade-union internationals that have lined up behind Dick Gephardt, on the other hand, are filled with people who make things in American factories--which not infrequently close down or get moved overseas--and whose principal worry is consequently a rather more immediate and urgently political one: that they might be left unemployed and destitute by some macroeconomic exigency or twist of federal trade law. Maybe he has been forced by circumstance to focus and intensify his appeal to such voters, I don't know. But whatever the reason, over the past couple months Gephardt has become a considerably more effective--even commanding--stump speaker.

No, the import-export stuff hasn't got quite the distinguishing bite it might have. By now, each of the other first-tier Democrats in the race, none more crudely and completely than Dean, has long since effected a tactical policy shift in Gephardt's direction, walking away from the free-trade past and loudly promising a fair-trade future in its stead. But Gephardt's remains the most transparently sincere and compelling fair-trade pitch; even if you reject the argument intellectually, it takes a heart of stone not to be moved by his description and denunciation of the "human exploitation" produced in NAFTA's near-term wake. The same goes for Gephardt's insistence that he'd be the president most loyally committed to traditional Democratic party principles as a whole. It's true, after all: He would. And it seems to be true as well, at least according to Pew's latest data, that party dogma still matters to Democrats. Howard Dean may have hurtled into the front-runner position by monopolizing the affections of those for whom it doesn't much matter, people who just wanna beat Bush, dammit. But most Democrats throughout the country--and in Iowa and New Hampshire, too--continue to tell pollsters that they'd prefer to nominate a man who's right on the issues, even if he might not be the very fastest horse in the stable.

In any case, Gephardt is nowadays making an ever more voluble and explicit and plausibly persuasive case that he, not Dean, is in fact that fastest horse. Gephardt wants to beat Bush as much as anybody, he tells an attentive group of Iowa Democrats in an Oskaloosa junior high school conference room this morning. But "if you're gonna beat him, you've got to beat him in the Midwest." Democrats will win California and New York, that much is assured. But they've also got to win "states like Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia," he explains. Then comes Gephardt's kicker: "If Al Gore had beaten George Bush in Missouri alone, which he almost did, even without Florida, he would be president today." And "I know I can beat George Bush in Missouri."

Howard Dean can't make that claim.

Last time I saw him in Iowa, earlier this fall, the fact that Gephardt had coauthored the House resolution authorizing "Bush's war" was clearly still costing him votes. The subject came up at his every public appearance, and the people who asked him about it invariably seemed disappointed or even peeved with his answers. This time, though, the mood appears to have changed. Perhaps Gephardt has already lost all the Iraq-related votes there are to lose. Or perhaps he's simply figured out how to parry the challenge more deftly, for it certainly can't be said to have disappeared. The war still comes up--in Oskaloosa, and at later meetings in Knoxville and Indianola as well-- and at bottom Gephardt's impressively stubborn defense of himself is still the same: His vote was the right thing to do; he had every reason to believe that Saddam Hussein's determination to acquire weapons of mass destruction represented a real and imminent danger to the United States, and the risk to American lives, were those weapons to be diverted into terrorist hands, obliged Gephardt to act as he had.

But he says all this more coherently and less apologetically than he used to, and, knowing his audience, he nowadays sweetens it with some Howard Dean-worthy indignation over the Bush administration's postwar diplomacy and reconstruction policies: "This president is the worst. He scares me. He frightens me." Three times Gephardt is called upon to deliver this speechlet over the course of the day, and three times the likely Iowa caucusgoer who's requested it from him listens while nodding his head in assent--even before the part about how "this president is the worst" arrives. Yes, they themselves opposed the war and still do, the head-nodders all later tell me. And yes, nevertheless, Dick Gephardt's position on the matter is something they can live with. He's got their votes.

THIS KIND OF EQUANIMITY in the face of divergent political opinion, incidentally, is a general characteristic of the Gephardt campaign, populated as it is by genuine grownups who know full well that it's sometimes necessary to stand your ground and fight, but also know that it's very rarely necessary or appropriate to pee on the other fellow's shoes. In this respect, too, Richard Gephardt would seem to enjoy a major "electability" advantage over Howard Dean. Dean and his "swarm" routinely radiate a naive, belligerent, almost incontinent hostility toward anyone who they suspect might not be One of Us, which is not the sort of attitude you'd ordinarily expect to see in a front-running, major-party presidential campaign--and not, for that matter, the sort of attitude any responsible man, regardless of his politics, would ever want to see installed in the Oval Office.

The Gephardt campaign is something altogether different. When I showed up for this morning's first event in Oskaloosa I was immediately greeted by a Gephardt volunteer wearing a Teamsters button, who asked me where I was from, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, told me he read THE WEEKLY STANDARD all the time--and then proved it, to my astonishment, by asking me whether I didn't think he deserved "extra credit for not going like this," as he wiped the hand I'd just grabbed across his chest. It was an allusion to a story I've previously told in these pages about my introductory encounter with Howard Dean this past March. "What a jerk Dean is," this Teamster gentleman mumbled with a rueful smile, like it was the most natural thing in the world for the two of us to agree about. "Come on in, have a seat."

Half an hour later, an irritable Oskaloosa local asked Gephardt what, as president, he planned to do by way of punishment for the congressional Republicans who have done so much to "undermine our democracy." For the only time all day, Gephardt briefly looked distressed, paused, and then calmly remembered how, during the 2002 midterm elections

I had a lot of Democrats come to me and say, "Boy, if we win we've got to give it back to 'em, we've got to come back and hit 'em just as hard as they hit us." And I said, "Not on my watch." Because when you do that it's just revenge, it's a cycle of revenge, and you're going to wind up ruining this country. So when I'm president . . . I'm gonna try to put together bipartisan efforts. I'm gonna try to unite the country to solve tough problems.

A few hours later in Knoxville, his voice beginning to quiver just a bit, an unselfconscious Gephardt, who'd just spent 20 minutes describing what a mess George W. Bush has made of things, nevertheless found reason to say that whenever he goes on foreign trips, "I come back and I want to grab people and say 'Do you know how lucky you are?'"

Richard Gephardt is a genial, decent man. He'd be a president you'd have to work awfully hard to hate.

Before he can even dream of being president, however, he's first got to wrest his party's nomination away from Howard Dean. Which means he has to win Iowa, since a subsequent Dean victory in New Hampshire seems virtually guaranteed at this point, and a two-state sweep, as even Gephardt has conceded, would mean "everyone else is toast."

How does he plan to get past the hurdles his campaign now appears to confront in Iowa, I ask Gephardt when I finally catch him alone, at the end of a 14-hour campaign schedule, carrying his own bags through the airport back in Washington, almost home. That morning's New York Times had a story in which unnamed Gephardt campaign aides were said to admit that their treasury would be empty on the day after the caucuses. Dean, by contrast, has all the money he could possibly want, and has already begun spending $400,000 a week on Iowa television time--an ad blitz that has vaulted "The Swarm" back on top in the latest Des Moines Register poll. How can Gephardt hope to keep up?

The Times was wrong, he says; "stories aren't always true, as you know." Those unnamed aides hadn't been speaking on his behalf "or on behalf of any known or knowable reality," either. "We've clearly raised enough money to compete effectively all the way through the first group of primaries." Besides, "money isn't everything in politics."

Money aside, though, has Gephardt also had a chance to read the "Dean Swarm" magazine report elsewhere in the Times that morning? He has, and he found it "most interesting," he tells me with a perfectly friendly and perfectly ambiguous smile. Doesn't he also think it suggests a serious and unusually tricky electioneering problem, I press? We're led to believe that Howard Dean is attracting sizable, fervent, financially generous support from a group of people more or less completely unsusceptible to ordinary political argument. How do you defend yourself against that?

"No question, it's a problem," Gephardt answers. "But you've got to ask yourself, 'How many of these people are there? How many of these people can there be?'"

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.