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The Last Populist

Dick Gephardt is the genuine article; the people of Iowa don't seem to care anymore.

8:50 PM, Jan 18, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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Ottumwa, Iowa

THERE IS NOTHING NEW about Dick Gephardt, but there is something unique. He sounds like William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner and the foremost populist in American political history. Not many genuine populists remain these days. But Gephardt is one. And his appeal to older, unionized, working-class voters differentiates him from the other Democratic presidential candidates seeking votes in Monday's precinct caucuses in Iowa.

Gephardt's pitch is simply this: Average Americans must not be crucified on a cross of unfair trade and tax cuts for the rich. Other Democrats may say the same thing, but not the same way and not with the same emotion and emphasis. John Kerry is a conventional Northeastern liberal and sounds like one. Howard Dean is an angrier version of the same thing, while John Edwards is a fuzzier version. Gephardt is different.

His problem with President Bush isn't ideological or partisan. It's cultural. "He doesn't understand the struggle people put up with in their lives," Gephardt told a roomful of voters in VFW Post 775 in Ottumwa Saturday night. "I know what it is to struggle." As a result, Gephardt's stump speech is more personal, poignant, and blue collar.

He tells stories about suffering caused by trade agreements that send jobs overseas. In a ravaged town in North Dakota, Gephardt said, he met a union leader who dug up home plate at a baseball field next to a closed school. It was supposed to remind Gephardt about the ripple effect of lost jobs. The man told him this, Gephardt said: "When you lose jobs, you lose churches. You lose schools. You lose businesses. You lose families. You lose our culture. You lose our way of life. I don't want you to forget." Relating the story to the Ottumwa crowd, Gephardt said, "I want to tell you something. I'll never forget it."

Gephardt's argument on trade is that the United States is condoning the exploitation of cheap labor abroad. "I've been to where these workers live," he said. "They live on the ground" in houses made of the same cardboard used for packaging goods exported to the United States. "We are condoning this by the way we do trade policy."

Once Bush's favorite Democratic congressional leader, Gephardt now denounces the president as a "miserable failure." Yet he says this in a way that doesn't sound like the hate speech of some Bush critics. Cutting taxes for those in the top brackets "never works. It never will work."

Gephardt would repeal all of the Bush tax cuts, even for the poor and middle class, and use the money for a program of guaranteed health care for everyone. This would amount to a benefit of $3,000 for the average middle class American, compared to the $700 they've gotten from the Bush tax cuts, Gephardt said.

Unlike other candidates, Gephardt tells audiences about his family. "Some times I choke up," he said, when he introduces his wife Jane. His son Matt, according to Gephardt, is alive only because the family had health insurance when he was diagnosed with cancer as a toddler. Now, if he's elected, "you'll have a president with total human willpower to get" health insurance for all Americans, Gephardt said.

By most accounts, Gephardt's populist message has not gripped Iowa. In Ottumwa, he attracted an audience of roughly 100. But some folks at the VFW hall didn't bother to listen to Gephardt, instead continuing their conversations. Kerry and Edwards have attracted bigger turnouts in Iowa. Both have shot past Gephardt in polls.

Why? Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 but lost the Democratic nomination to Mike Dukakis, is solid and decent, but comes across as a blast from the past. A century ago, the original populist, Bryan, won his party's nomination four times. In those days, populism was new and fresh.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.