For Dick Gephardt, 2001 was a year to forget. It began with bitter
recriminations over his party's failure to win back the House of
Representatives in the 2000 elections. Next, Gephardt watched
helplessly as Tom DeLay rammed the Bush agenda through the House.
In May, Gephardt saw his Senate counterpart Tom Daschle elevated
from minority to majority leader by Jim Jeffords's party switch.
Suddenly, Daschle was the undisputed face of the Democratic Party.
As Republicans waged their "demonize Daschle" campaign late last
year, Gephardt must have felt a strange envy: Republicans didn't
even consider him worth attacking. Gephardt kept trying to get in
the game, but nobody paid attention. "When he travels people say,
`You're not doing enough to stake out a position against Bush,'"
says one adviser. "Even though we're doing it every day."Gephardt seems determined to make this year different. Last week he
delivered a Major Policy Address, the sort designed to attract the
attention of party chieftains and pooh-bah pundits. He is pushing
for an "economic growth summit" at the White House, reinjecting
himself into an economic-stimulus debate that last year came down
to Bush versus Daschle. He also gave the Democratic response to
George W. Bush's State of the Union speech, a platform he sought
for himself despite some Democrats' assumption that he and Daschle
would appear jointly, as they did last year. And his aides are
eagerly dishing to reporters about his "new vision" for the party
and his likely run for president in 2004.
And so Gephardt will not go quietly into that good night. But his
return to national prominence complicates life for Democrats, who
already find themselves divided on fundamental questions such as
whether or not to attack the Bush tax cut. Particularly surprising
is the stance Gephardt is taking on those fundamental questions--a
cautious centrism of the type he denounced just a few years ago.
It's hard to see this new persona helping a Gephardt candidacy in
2004. But more significantly, it sets the stage for friction with
Daschle and a divided front against the GOP.
Gephardt's aides offer the obligatory caveat that he has not made up
his mind, but there is little doubt that he is running for
president. Some observers suggest that, should Democrats again fail
to win back the House this fall, Gephardt will look like the Little
Engine That Couldn't--and will choose not to run. Still others
suggest that if Democrats do reclaim the House and Gephardt becomes
speaker at last, he'll feel compelled to stay, if only to reward
Democratic members who deferred their retirements or otherwise
sacrificed to help him. But people close to Gephardt dismiss both
theories. "There's no impact either way," says one top aide. Adds
another adviser: "Being a Democratic speaker with a three-vote
majority would not be a lot of fun. Can you imagine waking up in
the middle of the night wondering where [conservative Blue Dog]
Ralph Hall is? Or if Jim Traficant's going to bolt? It would be a
nightmare." As the first aide bluntly puts it: "[H]e's strongly
inclined to run. "
As a presidential candidate, Gephardt has plenty of natural
advantages-- support from labor unions, access to big donors, an
organization in Iowa and New Hampshire left over from his 1988 run.
But he may be hampered by his image as a Capitol Hill tactician
with no broader vision. "He is seen as the most stale, tired member
of the  group," an adviser to another potential candidate
says. "He desperately needs to position himself as someone with
something to say."
As an informal kickoff for a presidential campaign, Gephardt's
address last week was clearly intended to do just that. "It's so
easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of the current
debate that we never lift our eyes and look ahead to the next
decade," Gephardt told a crowd at the famously moderate Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC). He might as well have hung a neon sign
behind the podium flashing the words "BIG IDEAS." And his biggest
idea was Clintonian centrism. Which is curious, given that as
recently as 1997, Gephardt denounced the Clinton White House's
cautious microgoverning. Back then Gephardt complained about "some
who now call themselves New Democrats, but who set their compass
only off the direction of others, who talk about the political
center, but fail to understand that if it's only defined by others,
it lacks core values." In the years since, he has crept back toward
the center, after realizing that the balance of power in Congress
depends on moderate, largely rural voters (see "Change for a Buck,"
August 21, 2000, by Jonathan Cohn). And so his DLC speech was
filled with buzzwords from the Clinton era--"opportunity,
responsibility, community"--and avoided populist rhetoric. Those may
be the fingerprints of two former Clintonites, Tom Freedman and
Paul Orzulak, enlisted to help core Gephardt loyalists craft the
speech. (Also included in a wide circle of consultants was John
Weaver, a strategist for John McCain who sometimes advises
Gephardt's office on reform issues.)
But there were two problems with Gephardt's "big ideas" speech.
First, as Gephardt himself suggested in 1997, Clintonian centrism,
practically by definition, means small, nonthreatening ideas. At
the DLC, Gephardt admirably called for a new "Apollo Project" to
achieve energy independence, but his specific proposals mainly
consisted of new tax credits; he avoided a politically treacherous
challenge to the auto industry on immediate fuel- efficiency
increases. He called for a universal pension system--a worthwhile
idea, but one that seemed ginned up to exploit the Enron scandal.
There was a familiar appeal for worker training and a call for
faster technological innovation. But, determined to project a
centrist image, Gephardt largely ducked the most important domestic
issue facing his party: the Bush tax cut. Gephardt sees the tax cut
as an unwinnable fight that will hurt Democrats in
November--effectively placing him to the right of not only Daschle,
but of the DLC itself, which has called for repealing large chunks
of the tax cut. Gephardt even seemed to imply that Democrats like
Daschle and Ted Kennedy who have contested the tax cut are risking
economic damage. "It's my view that we shouldn't be reconsidering
tax cuts in the middle of a recession," he said. Gephardt's
performance at the State of the Union was more of the same. Cnn
caught him conspicuously rising to applaud when Bush called the tax
cut's size "just right." And his response speech was quick to
praise tax cuts and cuts in "wasteful spending," before gently
sounding more traditional Democratic notes.
Moreover, these clear attempts to impress swing voters in key House
districts this fall may play to Gephardt's weaknesses, not his
strengths. "In terms of 2002," says a senior aide, "[w]e're not
gonna win in big cities. We're going to be fighting this out in
rural and less progressive districts." Yet it is doubtful that many
swing voters in the heartland are even aware of Gephardt's latest
speeches. In fact, many of Gephardt's colleagues in the House had
been expecting him to stake out a liberal niche, in contrast with
potential centrist candidates like Joe Lieberman and John Edwards.
"There's a lack of understanding about why Gephardt would appear to
be moving right," says an aide to one senior House liberal.
Indeed, it was hard not to notice the contrast between the DLC
speech and Gephardt's appearance at a Democratic National Committee
meeting the weekend before, where he delivered a furious,
finger-wagging partisan tirade. This was a Shrum-style speech, with
talk of Enron, campaign finance reform, prescription drugs, and
"handouts to the wealthiest and to the corporations." And unlike
his bland DLC performance, Gephardt clearly relished this populist
stem-winder. "He is at his best when he's talking about what he
truly feels," says the House aide. "You can tell when he's
passionate. He's not passionate about tax credits. He's passionate
about trade and economics."
And if Gephardt's strategy may hurt his presidential run, it could
hurt the party as well. Specifically, in his effort to reposition
himself, Gephardt has opened more space between himself and
Daschle. And the larger the 2004 race looms, the greater the
likelihood of friction between the two leaders. After Daschle's
speech blaming the Bush tax cut for the lost surplus in early
January, for instance, The Wall Street Journal reported that
Gephardt advisers "say Daschle erred in overemphasizing deficits
and the Bush tax cuts' impact," touching off a minor diplomatic
crisis on the Hill. ("Stunning," was the reaction of one Daschle
ally that day.) The mortified reaction of Gephardt staffers
suggests that the critique wasn't meant for print, but it fueled
suspicions that Gephardt's camp is quietly sniping at Daschle's
strategy to Washington reporters. A few days later came word that a
planned visit by Daschle to last weekend's House Democratic retreat
had been canceled at the last minute. Staffers firmly insist it was
a scheduling snafu, but the story remains murky, and columnist
Robert Novak reported that Gephardt had rescinded the invitation.
Aides to both men strongly refute this sort of talk, which they
blame on troublemakers with their own agendas. "There are people
outside their relationship, other people in the party with
presidential aspirations, who would like to sew the idea of
Daschle-Gephardt discord," says Bill Carrick, a longtime Gephardt
adviser. There's no doubt that Daschle and Gephardt have long
enjoyed a real friendship. Daschle was the first senator to endorse
Gephardt for president in 1988. They meet in the Capitol at least
once a week to plot strategy, and in November they traveled
together to Mexico for an official visit.
But with every passing month, the two men find themselves closer to
a Democratic primary in which they may compete. The problem could
be defused if, as some people close to Daschle now suspect, Daschle
doesn't run. (Among other things, his wife is said to be opposed.)
But as long as it's an open question, the two men will never
recapture the harmony of old.
Mistrust between leaders can be dangerous for a party. When Bob Dole
was preparing to run for president in 1996, he made no secret of
his concerns about Newt Gingrich's brusque leadership of the House,
providing fodder for Democrats trying to paint Gingrich as an
extremist. Since then there has been less dueling among party
leaders in Congress, partly because Republicans like Trent Lott and
Dennis Hastert clearly aren't presidential material. The key for
Daschle and Gephardt will be to work together at least until this
year's midterm elections. Even optimists in the party doubt they
can easily co-exist after that if both decide to run for president.
"You'll start seeing tensions after 2002," says a former
presidential strategist not aligned with either man. "You'll start
seeing elbows thrown." Here's hoping they can wait that long.