ON THIS MARCH DAY, the big Democratic donors have been left behind, in the penthouse of a luxury building overlooking Boston Common. Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri is making small talk with the mustachioed man who has accompanied him to the navy-blue SUV that will take him to Logan Airport. "My dad used to say, ĎThereís food on the table because Iím in a union,í" says Gephardt, whose father drove a milk truck and belonged to the Teamsters. "Exactly," the mustachioed man replies, nodding. "He said, ĎIíd never get fair wages if it werenít for the union,í" Gephardt continues. "He also said weíve got a middle class in this country because of unions."
Itís a quiet time. Thereís no dining room for Gephardt to work. No activists to lobby. Just small talk. On the way to the airport, Gephardt engages in more small talk with the Phoenix. Only the candidate, an aide, and this reporter are present.
It all might sound a little hokey. Old-fashioned, even. But the folksy musings betoken a politician who has been on Capitol Hill for 27 years and now, finally, seems to know exactly who and what he is. Gephardt, currently engrossed in his second run for the Democratic presidential nomination ó the first was in 1988, when he battled Tennessee senator Al Gore and eventually lost to Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis (Gephardt won South Dakota and finished second in New Hampshire, but was demolished on Super Tuesday) ó has boiled his political identity down to the core. Heís the candidate of labor, the working man, the one politician in the race who can continue the populist tradition of another Missourian, Harry S. Truman. In some ways, Gephardtís national presidential candidacy resembles the 2002 gubernatorial campaign of former Massachusetts Senate president Thomas Birmingham, who ran for the corner office as a legislative leader banking on support from the major labor unions.
Unlike Birminghamís run, however, Gephardtís campaign is picking up momentum, albeit quietly. To be sure, he hasnít raised the most money among the major prospective Democratic candidates running for the nomination. The $3.5 million he garnered in the first quarter of 2003 was less than the $7.4 million taken in by North Carolina senator John Edwards and the $7 million raised by Massachusetts senator John Kerry. (Gephardt reached an official first-quarter tally of $5.9 million by transferring an additional $2.4 million from his bloated congressional-campaign account.) But he has managed to drive the political debate with an innovative health-care proposal even as heís avoided the sniping over the war in Iraq that has embroiled other candidates. (Kerry and former Vermont governor Howard Dean, for example, have traded inflammatory accusations for the last several weeks: Kerry attacked Dean last week for saying, "We wonít always have the strongest military." Dean retorted that Kerry was employing "crass politics.") Gephardt unequivocally supported the war, but has preferred to focus on domestic issues while campaigning. This approach has served him well. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted between April 27 and April 30 showed that the former House minority leader garners the most support of any Democrat against President Bush: 35 percent. (According to the poll, Bush would beat Gephardt 60 to 35 percent; Kerry, 60 to 34 percent; and Lieberman, 61 to 34 percent.)
GEPHARDT HAS a political strategy to distinguish himself from the crowd, and itís one that returns him to his pro-labor roots: he hopes to leverage his populist-leaning economic ideas to garner support in the industrial Midwest that will see him through both the Democratic primary and the general election. That design hinges, in part, on his policy initiatives, such as the health-care plan that he formally announced on April 23 to generally positive reviews. The proposal calls for expanding existing health-care group plans to cover most of the uninsured, and funding it by rolling back Bushís tax cut. Even back in March, Gephardt thought the health-care plan would help him stand out. "I think this idea I have of trying to get rid of the Bush tax cuts and use the revenue for getting everybody covered with health care is a big idea, is a bold alternative," he says. "It is certainly very different from what Bush talks about." Perhaps surprisingly, Gephardtís plan has commanded widespread attention and almost unanimous acclaim. "The bold plan for near-universal health care offered last week by Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri sent echoes across the entire Democratic presidential field," wrote David Broder of the Washington Post. The Boston Globeís Thomas Oliphant commended Gephardt for having "serious business to transact at those all-important kitchen tables in America." And on ABCís This Week, even conservative pundit George Will praised the proposal: "Itís a presidential idea. And for his campaign, itís a stroke of genius.... This confirms my view, which is that heís not only the most presidential of the Democratic candidates, but heíd be the most difficult for Bush to beat."
Gephardtís call for an international minimum wage, on the other hand, has not received as much attention. But the proposal is almost as important to his political strategy. Under his plan, the World Trade Organization would institute a minimum wage among its member nations relative to the standard of living in each individual country. In theory, this would improve the standard of living in developing nations while also minimizing the wage disparity between the United States and other nations ó which would, in turn, keep some industrialized labor in the US, a long-time Gephardt issue. "Having an international variable minimum wage is a new idea, and one that is consistent with the trade policy that Iíve put out there for 20 years," says the congressman, who opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. "I think these are distinguishing ideas. And I think people will take a look at it."
Gephardtís calls for universal health care and an international minimum wage make sense in the context of his political strategy. His plan hinges in part on the chance that Michigan, a state heavily dependent on the automobile industry and loaded with union workers, might move up the date of its primary to make it the third such contest, directly following the caucus in Iowa (which neighbors his native Missouri) and the New Hampshire primary. Gephardt isnít conceding New Hampshire. He contends that Lieberman, Dean, and Kerry will divide the local constituency, while he will receive support from a solid chunk of the Granite State electorate. If Gephardt is still standing after Iowa and New Hampshire, heís optimistic about his chances. "We then go out to the Midwest and thatís where Iím the strongest. Iím going to have good labor support, Iím going to have good worker support, Iím going to have good energy at the grassroots level," he says, adding that his pro-labor credentials give him special appeal in Michigan. "I think I can do well in a state like that. I think I can appeal to the voters in a state like that. Iíve been really strong on economic issues, health care, education, trade, those are the issues that people will respond to."
CENTRAL TO any presidential campaign is the idea of electability. What do we know about Gephardtís? Well, it's a mixed bag. He is a well-known Washington face. He ran for president once before. Yet he campaigned across the country on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates in an attempt to help the Democrats retake the House and to become the House Speaker ó an attempt that failed. Also, Gephardt does not come from the South, a region that has produced all successful Democratic presidential candidates since John F. Kennedy. Despite these obstacles, Gephardt believes his plan and pedigree, with their appeal in the industrial Midwest, can win a national race against Bush. "If you look at the map, I think a Democrat, almost any Democrat, is going to win New York, some of the Northeast, California, maybe another Western state," he says. "Where you win this thing is the industrial heartland. Thatís where Gore won. Youíve got to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin." The candidate is convinced that this economically strapped region will catapult him to victory against Bush. "The real difference in this election with George W. Bush is going to be the industrial heartland, and thatís where Iím going to win because Iím from there."
Gephardtís strategy seems to fly in the face of recent national elections, which have revealed a cultural and political divide between the nationís largely Democratic coasts and major urban areas, and its primarily Republican interior and south. But the candidate believes that today, economic concerns will trump cultural issues. "West Virginia is a state that we [the Democrats] have won in probably every one of the last five presidential elections. We didnít win it last time, and we didnít win it, I guess, because of both environmental and gun issues," says Gephardt, who supports gun control and tougher environmental standards. "My stand on guns is probably not what everybody in West Virginia wants, and my stand on environmental issues is not what everybody in West Virginia wants. I think I can win on the economic issues in that state. I can make environmental issues economic issues. I can appeal to voters in that kind of a state. Trade is a big issue in a state like that. I think Iíll have an appeal to those voters."
Asked how he will appeal to more centrist voters among the general electorate after moving leftward in the Democratic primary, the usual pattern for Democratic presidential candidates, Gephardt claims such a move wonít be necessary. "Iím saying the same thing on all these issues from the beginning that Iím going to say all the way through," he says. "Iím not running on one set of issues in the primary and on another set of issues if I win the nomination. Health care, energy policy, education policy, economic, foreign policy ó Iím going to say the same thing throughout."
He would do well to display such constancy. Throughout his political career, Gephardt has often been characterized as a "chameleon," the headline of a 1994 Mother Jones story about him by Richard Blow. Having voted for Ronald Reaganís massive tax cut in 1981, Gephardt helped found the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s; later, however, he emerged as an economic populist. In 1986, the Baptist politician was a leading anti-abortion Democrat, but now heís pro-choice ó although he voted to ban so-called partial-birth abortion.
But given the candidate's consistency over the course of time, such criticism should be muted. The Gephardt running for president today is running on much the same program as the 1988 vintage. He is an old-fashioned lunch-pail Democrat whoís putting economic issues at the center of his presidential campaign. In an era where Big Business is under scrutiny and Bush is widely perceived as too friendly to plutocrats, both domestic and foreign (e.g., the government of Saudi Arabia), there might be an odd method to Gephardtís madness ó or his populist message might fizzle as too much yesterdayís news. Either way, the 2004 Gephardt knows his own strengths and weaknesses, a trait that can only serve a presidential candidate well. Even if it is, well, a bit retro.
Seth Gitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: Seth Gitell, who has been the Phoenix's political reporter since October 1999, is leaving to become press secretary for Mayor Tom Menino. This is his last article for the Phoenix.