On the downside, however, the public hates Congress these days, and Gephardt will be running as a leader of Congress. In a recent Harris Poll, 45 percent of those queried had an unfavorable view of congressional Democrats. By virtue of its very nature, Congress as a whole is seen as the center of partisan squabbling over such important political issues as presidential impeachment, taxes, and what the government knew about terrorism before September 11.
Those familiar with Gephardt’s thinking say the Missourian is familiar with this disadvantage and simply doesn’t care. Gephardt, 61, knows that 2004 will probably be his last chance to run for president. Some in his camp are still smarting over the fact that he didn’t run in 1992, when he decided against it twice during that election cycle. Few realize that he pondered running as late as January 1992, when Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was faltering in New Hampshire, in part over allegations that he’d had an extramarital affair with singer Gennifer Flowers. To this day, some Gephardt allies believe that if the congressman had gotten into the race at that point (already too late to make it onto the New Hampshire ballot), he may have been able to overtake Clinton — who, they point out, did not face premier Democratic talent that year. (Clinton’s competition in the 1992 national primary, the locally much-beloved former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, had been out of politics since 1983 and didn't have much national presence.)
If Gephardt does run, and it looks as if he will, what’s to stop the primary from becoming a rematch of the 1988 slugfest between Gephardt and Gore? While it’s true that Gore has been in near seclusion since the 2000 presidential race — making only a handful of public appearances, the most prominent of which was his fiery speech to the Florida Democratic Convention in April — most observers believe he will run in 2004. As the Washington Post’s David Broder noted, although Gore’s been inaccessible for months, the winner of the 2000 election’s popular vote has not come out and said point-blank that he’s not running. That’s why all potential candidates, from Gephardt to Lieberman and Kerry, are readying themselves for a challenge from the former vice-president.
So we’re likely to see the two most influential Democrats of their generation face off once again in a presidential primary. What will they do to each other?
THE GEPHARDT-GORE rivalry is famous. The two men entered Congress in 1976 and competed with each other for recognition as first of that class. In the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, the competition between Gore and Gephardt became one of the campaign’s subtexts. Each believed that if not for the other, he would be able to defeat Governor Michael Dukakis. Gore adopted Gephardt’s conservative proto–New Democratic image (Gephardt had been a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council); both assumed the trappings of patriotism to win the South. Each criticized the other for flip-flopping on issues. In one presidential debate, in Dallas, Gephardt accused Gore of changing his position on an oil tariff. "Lately, you’ve been sounding more like Al Haig than Al Gore," he said. "That line sounds more like Richard Nixon than Richard Gephardt," Gore fired back. During the campaign, Gephardt’s campaign manager, Bill Carrick, got into hot water after making inflammatory statements about Gore’s campaign team prior to Super Tuesday primary day. "I can’t wait," said Carrick. "It’s blood lust. Let me at him. I think they are the phoniest two-bit bastards that ever came down the pike, starting with Al Gore."
Tension between the two simmered through much of the 1990s, as Gore became Clinton’s frontman in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Gephardt emerged as the main advocate of organized labor, which opposed NAFTA. Eventually, largely in response to the threat Clinton faced from congressional Republicans, the two mended faces. When Gephardt decided not to run for president in 2000, Gore wooed the House minority leader, who eventually endorsed him. In the 2000 election, Gore increasingly relied on support from the AFL-CIO and began to sound more and more like Gephardt. And when Gore spoke to the delegates at the Florida convention in April, he did so in full Gephardt-style populist fashion. "I’ve had it," the vice-president said. "America’s economy is suffering unnecessarily. Important American values are being trampled. Special interests are calling the shots." Now, in their most recent reversal, Gephardt has become the hawk on Iraq, while Gore has been silent on the issue.
Democratic observers are of two minds about the prospects of a final Gore-Gephardt match-up. On the one hand, they look forward to it as great political theater. "It certainly would be a clash of titans in a way," says one former Gephardt operative. But they also worry that such a contest would only weaken the Democrats. "I don’t think [Bush political strategist] Karl Rove could imagine a better scenario than those two guys squaring off," the Gephardt ally adds.
Conventional wisdom holds that Gephardt would be easy grist for Democratic opponents and the Republican attack machine. Indeed, Mickey Edwards — a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who entered Congress with both men, and who’s currently a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — is quick to criticize Gephardt for flip-flopping. "The funny thing about Dick Gephardt is that he has been all over the place in terms of his philosophy," Edwards says. "When I first met him he was considered a very moderate centrist Democrat, and then he moved very much to the left."
Yet Gephardt, in many ways, is in a much better position to run for president than Gore is. Gephardt doesn’t have the baggage of a recent presidential run. (His 1988 effort has long been consigned to the ancient-history annals of presidential politics.) Plus, he is well placed to run as both a hawk on foreign policy and a lefty on economic issues, where Bush can be exploited — really, the only kind of Democratic candidacy that can win in 2004.
"He has the potential to run as an economic populist, social moderate, and foreign-policy hawk, which is the best platform for a Democrat to run on in 2004," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute. "If Gore runs, Lieberman will not, which leaves the Scoop Jackson territory to Gephardt."
And as far as the domestic left is concerned, Gephardt remains popular. "I think he’d be a great president," says Barry Bluestone, the director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, and a former Gephardt adviser. "I think Dick Gephardt is one of the brightest people in Congress. I’m impressed with his understanding of the issues and broad progressive outlook. To me, we would have a broad debate about the major issues of the day — Social Security, health care, international trade, and international policy."
It’s possible that, as some observers of presidential politics expect, Gore and Gephardt will cancel each other out. But the damage they do while battling could ruin their party’s chances in 2004.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com